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Former Federal Officials Are Urging Congress to Rein Down OPM’s Power and Strengthen the CHCO’s HR Oversight Capacity

Former Federal Officials
In marking the 20th anniversary of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Act of 2002 (Pub. L. 107-296), a panel of former federal officials testified before a Senate subcommittee on federal human resources (HR) reform and the need for a collaborative relationship with agency executives, CHCOs, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

In marking the 20th anniversary of the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Act of 2002 (Pub. L. 107-296), a panel of former federal officials testified before a Senate subcommittee on federal human resources (HR) reform and the need for a collaborative relationship with agency executives, CHCOs, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Angela Bailey, former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) CHCO and public servant for 40 years; Michael Rigas, former OPM Deputy Director and Acting Director; Steve Lenkart, Executive Director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFEE); and Terry Gerton, President & Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s (HSGAC) Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management.

Chairwoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) began the rotation of senatorial questions with asking Bailey how Congress can better serve CHCOS and aid them in the pursuit of recruiting, retaining, and managing the federal workforce.

The subcommittee’s Ranking Member Senator James Lankford (R-OK) also focused on hiring issues in his opening statement, “Whenever we have a hearing on this topic, what always comes up is the number of hiring authorities and just about everyone brings up at some point, direct hire, expedited hiring, non-competitive hiring. And to say we have 100 different authorities; we don’t like any of them or we only use a fraction of those… Our hiring system is definitely broken, and it shows every time we get to one of these hearings and someone else asked for another way to be able to get around it. We’ve got to be able to resolve that.”

As the CHCO Council is the only council co-chaired by OPM and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Bailey argued it would be more advantageous if CHCOs were more prominent in its leadership. Gerton concurred with Bailey, citing a report that recommended Congress amend the CHCO Act to establish a rotating co-chair for the CHCO Council from amongst the members themselves.

“The OPM Director needs to specifically include the CHCO Council in the center of policy and regulation development,” noted Gerton, “Consider them strategic partners and expert advisers rather than simply using them as a communications tool.”

Rigas, who served as OPM’s Acting Director at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, was questioned by Chairwoman Sinema about reports that OPM failed to consult with the CHCO Council regularly. According to Rigas, he was unaware of any communication issues between OPM and the CHCO Council, noting that largely due to the pandemic, he met with the CHCO Council at a higher rate than any other OPM director.

“One of the roles that the CHCO Council is there to establish is to provide crosscutting feedback to the OPM director on issues that are affecting the various agencies that the CHCOs represent who have missions and workforces that are as broad and diverse as the country they serve. So, I think we need more communication,” stated Rigas.

However, NAPA’s Elevating Human Capital report maintains that the opposite is true, stating that although the agency held weekly “virtual meetings” with the HR directors and members of the council to primarily “share information.” Moreover, the report highlights how OPM underutilizes the CHCO Council, a group that has rarely been able to serve as a consultant to OPM on federal workforce issues.

Specifically, Bailey and Gerton argue that OPM needs to move away from its focus on transactional compliance to be a true partner with CHCOs and improve HR policies.

“OPM has been working on a human capital competency model for years. We certainly think that they should finish, but you don’t want to describe a competency model for the system that you hope will be re-engineered,” contend Gerton, “We want to re-engineer that system and describe the kinds of HR competencies that we want the workforce to have for a system that will work for the future.”

Lenkart also proposed that OPM could move away from its traditional role of approving individual agency actions, such as buyout authority and cash bonuses for individual employees, to a risk-based approach.

“Between OPM and CHCOs, allowing them to move ahead with some of the things they know or within the law and supported by merit principles. I think they need the flexibility to go ahead and [take action]—OPM can always audit,” Lenkart suggested, “The [Merit Systems Protection Board] can always review actions and make corrections, if necessary. Congress can always appropriate or authorize. There’s also the relationship between the CHCO in the agencies.”

Gerton concluded OPM needs to evolve into a more strategic organization, leaving their current state of compliance behind. With 45 percent of federal employees eligible for retirement, Gerton and Bailey suggested a specific revision to authorities for OPM in Title 5.

“What we’ve done is we’ve built an entire system based on this trust. Everything is about whether or not we think an agency is going to do something nefarious. But I think for OPM–and I was there for seven years–their customer is Title 5 not the agencies,” Bailey began, “Their goal is to protect Title 5 at all costs, and when you’re protecting a law and not dealing with realism or the practicality of what an agency is trying to struggle to do, there’s always going to be a situation where we’re banging heads with each other.”

The hearing ultimately summarized NAPA’s aforementioned report, which recommended that OPM develop a more streamlined working relationship with the council and make better use of the council’s expertise and experience to resolve tough workforce policy issues.