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We should break up the Office of Personnel Management, but for right reasons

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The Trump administration appears headed toward breaking up the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The security clearance function is already transitioning to the Department of Defense, and it’s proposed that the human resources administrative functions go to the General Services Administration and the policy making go to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

These are reasonable moves, but they need to be made for the right reasons.

OPM and its sister agencies, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Board, were created in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to replace the original Civil Service Commission.

The OPM director is a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee who receives a five-year term designed to provide some insulation from direct political interference. This entire structure was based on the premise that a career civil service should be responsive, politically-neutral and professionally competent.

Over the years, OPM has not achieved the status that its framers envisioned. There has been tension between OPM and OMB concerning which office made personnel policy. While OPM does well at managing insurance and retirement programs for federal employees, it also has a reputation for being a cumbersome bureaucracy mired in detailed rules and regulations. Some agencies have sought exemption from OPM’s oversight. Legislation enacted in 2002 and 2004gave the departments of Homeland Security and Defense authority to create their own personnel systems. Both were eventually abandoned.

One reason floated for the proposed reorganization is that the transfer of security clearance work to Defense — and the money allocated for this purpose — will leave OPM with insufficient financial resources. This is disingenuous at the least. The administration caused the problem in the first place and is now using the problem it created to justify more changes.

Other arguments for greater efficiency are somewhat more convincing, but simply transferring functions, organizations and people between agencies is no guarantee for efficiency improvements. This gives rise to fears that the real purpose for moving the policymaking function to the White House is the politicization of the civil service.

The civil service in the U.S. federal government originated with the Pendleton Act of 1883. Enacted in response to the abuses of the spoils system, the act created a merit system in the selection and promotion of career professional government employees. In 1887, Woodrow Wilson wrote it was the job of political leaders to establish policy priorities and programs, and it was the job of responsive career administrators to follow those policy directions. Administration, he wrote “lies outside the proper sphere of politics.” The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act essentially preserved these principles.

But new presidential administrations often come into office with a distrust of the bureaucracy, especially of those career officials who worked closely with the political leaders of the previous administration of the opposition party. Both the Reagan and Trump administrations demonstrated this distrust and tried to find and move out career officials deemed insufficiently responsive or disloyal. If transferring OPM’s policy role to OMB is motivated by these perceptions, we can expect to see political leaders hire, promote, remove or reassign career officials for political and policy reasons rather than reasons rooted in non-partisan merit.

Visions for the 21st century civil service are conditioned by circumstances much different than when the Civil Service Reform Act was enacted in 1978.

For instance, Congress has delegated a great deal of discretionary authority to the executive branch departments and agencies for designing, implementing and managing government programs and policies. Many of these responsibilities fall to the career civil servants. But can we really expect a politically neutral professional bureaucracy under these circumstances? What are reasonable boundaries to accommodate career officials who are both politically responsive and committed to the mission of their agencies? Is there a way to manage the federal workforce politically without returning to the spoils system or enabling abusive behavior by political appointees?

Moreover, it is estimated that 40 percent of the people working for the federal government today are contractors and consultants. How does the concept of a civil service account for this workforce? To what extend should principles of merit and political neutrality be applied to non-governmental contractors and consultants doing government work?

Finally, the federal government is approaching a workforce crisis. Members of the baby boom generation are retiring from government service at ever-increasing rates while younger workers are in short supply and a declining share of recent college graduates are entering government work. What kind of civil service would make the federal government an attractive employer in a competitive job market?

So, go ahead and break up OPM. But before doing so, think about what the civil service of the 21st century should look like.

Douglas A. Brook, Ph.D. is visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served as acting director of OPM in the George H. W. Bush administration.

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