Margaret Weichert, acting Office of Personnel Management director, talks with reporters about civil service issues on Oct. 11. (Office of Personnel Management)
Reporter

A recent gathering of experts on the federal workforce that the White House convened produced suggestions that could be turned into policy initiatives and it also lent support to one already being pursued, to break up the Office of Personnel Management and have it focus only on policy, the acting director of that agency said Monday.

“It is not leading practice in the private sector for strategic human capital functions to be managing as many in-bound call centers, for example, as OPM is today. . . . I think that was absolutely validated in the discussions that we had with the academics and the private sector,” said Margaret Weichert, who recently added the OPM role to her duties as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

“Just managing the basic operation of our [human resources] transactions eats up most of the time of most of the people in the Office of Personnel Management such that there’s very little personnel management going on and a lot of transaction management going on,” she said.

Under a wide-ranging government reorganization plan the White House released in the summer, the General Services Administration would run the federal employee insurance and retirement programs as well as the personnel services that OPM provides to agencies. The Defense Department would take over responsibility for conducting background checks, and OPM would become a policy arm of the White House.

As with many other parts of the overall plan, those ideas have proven controversial and have raised questions regarding whether a change in law requiring the consent of Congress would be needed.

While the upcoming budget proposal may seek changes in law, “the most impactful parts of the reorganization I believe can be done administratively,” Weichert said in a phone interview. “GSA is an entity that does a lot of processing activity on behalf of other agencies today. The authority itself may still rest with an agency called OPM but the activity could be managed in a different way” — that is, contracted out from OPM to GSA.

“The mechanics of all of these components have to be worked out, but in principle we’re looking at an operating model that puts our human capital talent at OPM to its highest and best use supporting the workforce of the 21st century. That’s how we want to think about it,” she said.

Weichert made her remarks on the release of a report summarizing a September symposium at OMB — which was closed to the media — of experts on workplace policies and trends from government agencies, private industry, nonprofit organizations and colleges. Ideas raised there included revising long-standing basic policies and invigorating little-used programs such as rotational assignments, according to the report, written by Mitre, a nonprofit group that performs research and advisory services for federal agencies and other employers.

One of the report’s dozen main areas of focus involved employee performance evaluations, which the government uses when considering promotions, merit-based raises and protections during layoffs. Employees are assigned numeric ratings, typically once a year, on how well they meet defined job requirements. The report cited suggestions that employees be evaluated instead on the value they bring to their agencies, with continuous feedback between them and their supervisors.

“What we see in the private sector is leading organizations moving in favor of a model that looks at an individual’s role, the value of that role, the skills that they bring, the results they deliver and the behaviors they exhibit,” said Jim Cook, vice president of strategic engagement and partnership at Mitre. “It is time something like that be given a hard look inside the government if the government is going to continue to be competitive and a viable employer.”

The report notes that in an annual government-wide survey, employees give some of the lowest scores to whether pay and promotional opportunities reflect performance and to whether agencies take action against poorly performing co-workers. However, changing the performance management system would be “particularly complex and challenging,” it adds, and would require a cultural shift from a judgmental process to a developmental one.

Federal employees “also frequently criticize federal agencies for providing insufficient opportunities for personal development and career advancement,” the report says. Adopting a “talent marketplace” approach would provide more flexible career paths for employees while creating a pool of workers with the skills the government requires to meet its needs, it says.

The government has career-development programs but they need greater emphasis and more funding, it adds. Further, changes might be needed in policies that hinder their use, such as the conflict-of-interest rules applying to rotations between the government and the private sector.

Other ideas included greater use of special hiring and pay-setting authorities to bring people with needed skills into the government temporarily, using data to better understand the skills the government has and needs in its workforce, and formal programs to “reskill” those whose jobs are changed, or ended, by new technologies.

Said Weichert: “I think the symposium highlighted a ton of information about where we have challenges in our existing operating model. The solution to those challenges might be administrative, it might be organizational, it might be legislative. For the most important priority processes — hiring, rewards and recognition, mobility, agility, reskilling — [the questions were] what are the barriers to that and what are the tools that we might bring to bear to address those?”

She added: “Our goal wasn’t to come up with a legislative package per se. Our goal was to get data from the market to inform the President’s Management Agenda main goal around people and the workforce. We’re going to fit the need to the appropriate vehicle to solve that problem. We’re not a hammer in search of a nail. We really want to understand what are our challenges and what are the tools to address them."