This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
It seems safe to assume that most people stopped paying attention to confirmation votes sometime around late spring (if not well before). And even those few who are still tuned in would be forgiven for missing the confirmation vote that directly preceded last week’s Senate showdown over the For the People Act. Despite its low-profile, however, that position — to lead the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) — may be among the most critical to the success of the Biden administration’s agenda.
Put simply, whether the administration is implementing new legislation or reviving underutilized, longstanding law, it will need a federal government that is better staffed and more reflective of the country to deliver for the public. Biden’s nominee, Kiran Ahuja, has recognized the necessity of these changes. Now that she’s confirmed, will she use her role creatively and aggressively to make them a reality?
In the five months since he took office, Biden has already taken steps to make good on his promises to respect and strengthen the federal workforce. Within a few days of his inauguration, he struck Trump’s most astounding attacks on civil service unions and federal workers’ independence from the books. Even more notable, Biden’s presidential budget bucked not only Trump but decades of anti-government consensus by proposing big funding increases for many agencies and departments.
And yet, as significant as that departure is, it’s just the start of what’s needed. To have any hope of bringing on as many people as will be needed, on the timeline necessary, sustained attention to the mechanics of hiring and retaining a talented federal workforce will be necessary. As the government’s HR department and the President’s adviser on personnel policy, OPM will be essential to that task.
As it stands, the federal government’s hiring is inefficient and, often, ineffective. As the Partnership for Public Service notes, “too many agencies rely on antiquated recruiting and hiring practices that overburden HR staff, slow down the hiring process and potentially result in poorer-quality hires.” This contributes to a reality in which the federal government takes an average of 98 days to hire a new employee, far longer than in the private sector. And that’s if anyone is hired at all. Many vacancies posted to USAJobs go unfilled.
All of that waiting doesn’t seem to be resulting in better hires either. Many agencies persistently struggle to hire and recruit people with the specialized talents they need. Across the board, the federal government has been chronically unable to hire young people at anything resembling a reasonable rate. It has also struggled to build a workforce that is reflective of the country’s diversity, particularly at more senior levels.
Members of Biden’s team have repeatedly affirmed that they recognize the need to address these problems and have promised concrete changes. Many agencies have independently been working to get people on board as quickly as possible. And, under acting leadership, OPM has been taking steps to help agencies fill the gaps. Earlier this month, for example, it cleared away an obstacle to rehiring departed staff (e.g., career people disgusted with the trajectory of the government under Trump) whose institutional expertise could prove invaluable in this pivotal moment. Still, with so many competing priorities demanding this administration’s attention, it’s not hard to see how having a permanent, confirmed leader with a mandate to think bigger and to keep the issue at the top of the agenda will be essential.
Director Ahuja should start by augmenting OPM’s efforts to provide immediate help to agencies working to bring on a wave of new hires. One possibility is to temporarily expand the use of hiring flexibilities to allow agencies to circumvent the (often cumbersome) competitive hiring process and get new employees working for the American public more quickly. This might include encouraging agencies to make use of temporary hires for the short-term, while simultaneously making the changes necessary to make conversions to permanent positions easier. OPM could also authorize agencies to make greater use of direct-hire authority, which places new hires in the civil service from the start. This needs to be done carefully and only stay in place temporarily until more permanent solutions are implemented, so as not to undermine the civil service.
To ensure that this hiring wave includes the young people who will be critical to building a federal workforce that is resilient and enduring, OPM should encourage agencies to make immediate, maximal use of the Pathways Program, a set of hiring authorities that allows agencies to bring on, and then potentially permanently hire, interns and recent graduates. At the same time, OPM should be working to implement changes to make the program even more effective.
OPM can also quickly help improve hiring outcomes by identifying best practices at individual agencies and encouraging their widespread adoption. Although the overall state of hiring is poor, bright spots do appear in some corners of the executive branch. Drawing from these examples, OPM might encourage more agencies to conduct hiring in regular rounds for a wide array of similar positions, as is the practice at the National Institutes for Health. This saves considerable time when compared to recruiting for tens, hundreds, or even thousands of positions on an individual basis. OPM could also push agencies to retain promising resumes from past hiring rounds and draw from them when new positions open, as the State Department does. Or, it could assume responsibility for maintaining such a database government-wide.
OPM should also work to ensure that best practices around recruitment are being widely adopted. OPM can push agencies, for example, to establish or strengthen relationships with colleges, universities, and trade schools where they haven’t already — particularly, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and other Minority-Serving Institutions. At the same time, OPM should identify how it might better support government-wide recruitment and identify and advocate for the resources that would be necessary for it to expand.
In general, OPM has suffered from the same resource starvation and staff attrition that has plagued agencies across the federal government. To implement these reforms and others, it will be essential that OPM’s own budget and workforce grow.
These suggestions will help provide some immediate relief and prepare the federal government to take advantage of the new funding that Congress will hopefully approve this fall, but they just scratch the surface of what’s needed. It will be up to the OPM Director to keep this perpetually forgotten issue on the agenda and to make clear the stakes so that progress continues. Biden could advance that cause by elevating Ahuja to his Cabinet, as many have advocated.
Whether it’s triaging in the short-term or overhauling in the long-term, one thing is clear: when it comes to delivering on Biden’s agenda, OPM’s new director will be a critical player. She should bring at least as much energy and creativity to the task of rebuilding the federal workforce as her predecessors did to their mission of destroying it.
Eleanor Eagan is a Research Director for the Revolving Door Project’s Governance Team.