The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden turns to Obama administration veteran to lead key federal personnel agency

The White House on Monday, during a commemoration of the 500,000 Americans killed in the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House on Monday, during a commemoration of the 500,000 Americans killed in the coronavirus pandemic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Biden has tapped Kiran Arjandas Ahuja, a civil rights lawyer, activist and Obama-era veteran, to lead the Office of Personnel Management, a department the Trump administration tried to kill but is now expected to take on a high-profile role.

Ahuja, 49, served as the personnel agency’s chief of staff from 2015 to 2017 as it faced fallout from a massive data breach that compromised the personal information of millions of federal workers and contractors. Before that, she led the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Obama White House.

Ahuja returned to federal personnel matters during the Biden transition as head of the team reviewing OPM and other agencies that deal with the federal workforce, taking a leave from her role as chief executive of Philanthropy Northwest, a regional philanthropic network of six northwestern states. Her nomination was announced Tuesday.

Ahuja would have a mandate to reverse course on former president Donald Trump’s policies on the civil service, which he and his top aides often derided as a “deep state” of Democratic bureaucrats. Many agencies lost experts in a range of fields during the Trump era, and Biden has pledged to revitalize the workforce.

The agency became deeply politicized under the Trump administration, which installed a record number of political appointees there as personnel policy was increasingly dictated by the White House. Trump’s last confirmed personnel chief, Dale Cabaniss, quit with no notice last year after five months on the job, following months of tension with political appointees installed by the White House to monitor how she ran the office.

Trump’s first chief, Jeff Tien Han Pon, was fired after seven months because he resisted the administration’s plan to dismantle the office and farm out its functions to other departments, including the White House.

Trump’s federal personnel chief quits abruptly amid coronavirus planning for workforce

OPM sets central policies ranging from hiring to firing for the 2.1 million executive branch workers and administers their retirement, insurance and other benefits.

The Trump administration had proposed gutting the agency by shifting most of its roughly 2,500 employees to the General Services Administration while moving its policymaking functions into the Office of Management and Budget, putting them under more direct White House control. A bipartisan move in Congress blocked those changes, although lawmakers agreed to move to the Defense Department thousands of employees who conduct background checks for prospective and current employees.

Even as it was left mostly intact, the personnel agency found itself emasculated by the Trump White House, which set a tone with numerous far-reaching policies to curb the power of the federal workforce and its unions.

If Trump has his way, this major federal agency is on its way out

Biden revoked them within days of taking office, stressing that rebuilding the civil service would be a priority for his government.

The Trump actions included presidential orders to restrict the role of unions in the federal workplace, limit employee protections in disciplinary cases to the minimum required by law, suspend diversity training pending a review of the content, and remove civil service protections from a large class of employees.

The office had only acting directors for all but about a quarter of Trump’s term, with two directors who were confirmed by the Senate each resigning after about six months. Trump’s last confirmed director resigned just as the coronavirus pandemic put new demands on federal agencies and turned unprecedented numbers of federal workers into teleworkers. The Senate did not act on a later nominee because of concerns about comments he had made while a political commentator.

“Kiran Ahuja brings a wealth of experience in federal personnel matters, and her record of advocacy on behalf of women of color is reason for us to be optimistic that she will make it a priority to reverse the previous administration’s active undermining of diversity and inclusion efforts across the government,” Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing the workforce, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with Ms. Ahuja to uphold merit systems and principles and rebuild the apolitical civil service.”

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, called the personnel office “critically important to building a high-functioning federal workforce” in a statement and commended Biden for his commitment to “recruiting, retaining and honoring” the civil service.

Ahuja arrived at the agency during the Obama administration as it was hit by one of the federal government’s most far-reaching data breaches. The background investigation records of 4.2 million current, former and prospective federal employees and contractors were hacked, including personal information. It look the agency years to recover, and the incident, blamed on China, cost the agency’s director at the time her job.

Born to immigrants from India, Ahuja grew up in Savannah, Ga., and went to work as an attorney for the Justice Department after law school. She left the government to become founding director of a nonprofit, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

Ahuja is a graduate of Spelman College and got her law degree from the University of Georgia.