The federal workforce deserves 21st century support

This week, during Public Service Recognition Week, we honor the contributions of millions of Americans who serve in government. These dedicated men and women keep our country safe, protect our values and provide critical support for all Americans, including veterans, farmers, small business owners and disaster victims.  

In 2018, more than 90 percent of surveyed federal employees affirmed their belief in the importance of their work and 96 percent are willing to put in extra effort. However, these same employees report chronic dissatisfaction with key aspects of their federal service. More than 60 percent of surveyed federal employees are dissatisfied with the government’s ability to reward performance, deal with poor performers and promote core principles of merit-based employment.

However, over the last 40 years, well-intentioned, but overzealous laws and regulations have multiplied, tying the federal personnel system into bureaucratic knots. The result is a personnel system that cannot meet the needs for today’s federal workforce. In fact, federal managers’ satisfaction with human resources (HR) services is rated last among all service areas. The need for a modern HR system is indisputable, and we must do better. Real reform is necessary, and our hard-working federal employees deserve it. The urgency of this reform is all the more apparent as we face a constant demand to upgrade the skills and capabilities of the federal workforce and digital solutions.

This reform starts with the transformation of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Created more than 40 years ago, OPM was designed to protect merit-based employment principles for 2.1 million federal workers and administer health and retirement benefits for millions. Until now, OPM employees have faced the impossible task of delivering 21st Century HR solutions with 20th century organizational tools and technology. Additionally, the U.S. government’s existing framework for establishing trust in the federal civilian, military and contracted workforce has struggled to effectively onboard needed personnel, and to determine whether those workers can be consistently trusted to perform their duties. To address this government-wide challenge and support the implementation of a National Defense Authorization Act mandate, the administration in 2018 directed the reform and transfer of the background investigation (BI) mission from OPM to the Department of Defense (DoD).

The solution to these structural challenges is a merger between OPM and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The idea for a merged government services agency is not new. Past Democratic and Republican administrations have considered similar proposals, but opted instead for modest, cosmetic fixes that failed to address underlying problems. 

Current structural challenges leave OPM in an unsustainable long-term position, incapable of delivering mission-critical federal workforce support. So, now is the time for true reform. Many state and local governments already combine support services under a single agency, effectively integrating HR with other support services. GSA, a trusted leader in government IT and procurement, has the expertise to upgrade OPM’s IT infrastructure, while OPM provides practical HR knowledge. Together, OPM and GSA will be able to create better, more integrated solutions as agencies modernize buildings, contracts and workspaces to meet today’s workforce needs.

 

Unlike some reports suggest, this reform will not result in layoffs of employees and it will not undermine merit systems protections. Rather, it seeks to acknowledge and address the technology, operations and financial risks that already affect OPM’s ability to uphold these same principles.   

In reality, failure to act and transform is the biggest risk the federal workforce faces.

To date, the OPM and U.S. General Services Administration merger is the only meaningful reform proposal that has been put forth to protect OPM’s core mission. OPM and GSA have participated in dozens of meetings with key stakeholders in the legislative and executive branches, and with good government advocates. I have met with congressional leaders from both parties to get their feedback, share perspectives and chart a bipartisan path forward and I am ready to redouble these efforts. I have also initiated dialogue with the national and local union leaders who support our federal workforce.

Providing our civil servants with the organizational tools for their work shouldn’t be controversial or political. This is simply good government and our workforce deserves the best.

I stand ready to work with all those who truly care for our federal workers to promote true dialogue about 21st century workforce solutions. I am committed to finding a viable path forward and will continue to engage with congressional leaders to provide our federal workforce with the modern HR solutions they deserve.

Margaret Weichert is acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.