President Obama has nominated Katherine Archuleta, a top official in his 2012 campaign, to head the Office of Personnel Management.
Archuleta, the second Hispanic nominee for a political appointment during Obama’s second term, served as national political director on his reelection team and helped organize the blockbuster Democratic National Convention in Denver during his 2008 run. Her work in the government includes roles as chief of staff to then-Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis from 2009 to 2011, senior policy adviser for the city and county of Denver from 2005 and 2009, and chief of staff to then-Transportation Secretary Federico F. Peña during the latter years of the Clinton administration.
“She’s seen the inside of the federal government, but the job of OPM director in many ways is not one with an easy parallel,” said Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.
If confirmed, Archuleta, 65, will head the government’s human-resources department at a time when public perceptions of federal employees have hit a low, with the workforce beset by a recent IRS scandal and attacks from Republican lawmakers, who say the government is bloated, inefficient and too costly.
“All the questions about hiring, firing, motivation and retention are going to be hotter than they’ve been in a while,” Kettl said. “She’ll be walking right into the fire when she takes office.”
As head of OPM, Archuleta would be tasked with implementing the agency’s Pathways program, an initiative that then-
Director John Berry launched last summer to speed up the federal hiring process and attract top talent to the public sector. That role presents the next OPM chief with the opportunity to make a positive impact, according to government-personnel experts.
“It needs to be someone who can get those issues on the agenda,” said Lynn Ross, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in public administration. “That has not been the case for some time, perhaps decades.”
“Good governance is about the people who are actually doing the work,” Ross added. “To the extent that the public is demanding a good government, a healthy and vibrant civil service is critical.”
As political director for the Obama campaign, Archuleta handled relationships with elected officials, party leaders, labor groups and other key members of the president’s base. Last year, she received an honorable mention in the Denver Post’s “Colorado’s top thinkers” list in the politics and government category, with the paper noting that she navigated thorny issues such as Latino outreach during the president’s bid for reelection.
“She was unbelievably connected with the communities where we traveled,” said Allyson Laackman, first lady Michelle Obama’s former campaign chief of staff. “We could land and be immediately connected.”
Archuleta has no experience leading a federal agency, but Kettl said her time working with the president would pay off.
“The big and important pieces of her résuméare her connections with the White House and the president,” Kettl said. “It’s important because you want to have your phone calls answered when problems come up, and you want the president’s support in advancing the items on your agenda.”
President Obama said in a statement Thursday that Archuleta’s qualifications include “broad experience and a deep commitment to recruiting and retaining a world-class workforce for the American people.”
Both of Obama’s first-term Hispanic appointees, Solis and Ken Salazar, have left their positions; Salazar had led the Interior Department. Archuleta’s nomination addresses concerns about diversity on the president’s second-term roster.
“Being both a female and Hispanic contributes to the diversity of high-level appointments the president is making and his ability to talk to his political base,” Kettl said. “It speaks to the criticism he’s faced over appointing only senior white men in many cases.”
Obama’s other second-term Hispanic nominee is Thomas Perez, a U.S. assistant attorney general whom the president tapped in March to become labor secretary.
Republicans have fiercely resisted Perez’s confirmation. Last week, he overcame a minor hurdle as a Senate committee cleared his nomination — on a strictly party-line vote — for consideration by the full chamber.
It is unclear whether Archuleta will face similar resistance.
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association on Thursday encouraged “swift Senate action” on her confirmation. “It is important to build on former director John Berry’s strong leadership at OPM,” the group said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our close relationship with OPM in maintaining a strong federal workforce.”
Said Kettl, “There’s always a risk that people will use the confirmation process to embarrass the president. I don’t see anything in particular that suggests any kind of hot-button issues in this case, but it’s difficult to predict what will happen on the Hill these days.”