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Personnel chief optimistic despite challenges ahead

Columnist

It’s always good to talk with folks new to a job. They’re so fresh, so optimistic, so eager to conquer challenges ahead.

We’ll see if Katherine Archuleta remains that way after several months as director of the Office of Personnel Management. She started Monday.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

It’s a small agency, comparatively, but a big job with some big headaches.

OPM’s policies and practices affect about 2 million federal employees and several million more family members and retirees. Now its reach is extending beyond government workers and their relatives to many more Americans seeking health insurance through the multi-state plans OPM is organizing under the Affordable Care Act.

But even without the new Obamacare responsibilities, Archuleta carries a heavy load on rough terrain. She takes office with employees suffering a bad case of the blues. Morale is in the pits.

A freeze on basic pay rates has been in place for almost three years. Many employees swallowed pay cuts in the form of unpaid leave days because of sequestration budget reductions. The recent government shutdown affected hundreds of thousands of workers and sapped everyone’s spirits. Now a hit on federal retirement benefits could emerge from a congressional conference committee considering budget proposals.

“It’s a difficult time” for employees who “feel beleaguered,” Archuleta said during an interview Thursday.

Recognizing that is important. Managing a dispirited workforce can be more difficult. It’s harder than getting a report out on time.

Archuleta said she plans to work with other agency heads on morale issues affecting employees “to reinforce their value.” Personal attention and leadership from the top are key, she said. People want to hear that they are important.

That’s true now more than ever.

John M. Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said results from OPM’s coming Employee Viewpoint Survey “are likely to show that federal employees’ job satisfaction and commitment are at their lowest level in at least the last 10 years.”

That’s a big problem. Reversing that slide should be one of Archuleta’s top priorities, he suggested.

“We know that there is a positive correlation between employee engagement and workforce productivity and effectiveness,” added Palguta, a former OPM official.

In this gloomy environment, Archuleta must figure out how to recruit and retain great talent. She wants to take the success stories of federal employees to new audiences, such as young people looking for a career and mid-career people looking for a new one.

One of her top priorities is increasing the diversity of the federal workforce.

“I bring a personal view of that,” said Archuleta, the highest-ranking Latina in the government. She mentioned diversity three times in a news release announcing her swearing-in.

The government should increase diversity in a number of ways. There is a glaring need to improve the number of Hispanics at the top levels of the civil service, where things are going backward.

“Hispanic new hires in the Senior Executive Service (SES) decreased from 5.4 percent in FY 2011 to 2.0 percent in FY 2012,” said an OPM report released in September.

Archuleta, who was in the SES, said the government must examine the “pathway” to SES, “at every step of the way” to improve diversity at the top.

Among her other priorities is fixing OPM’s retirement processing. The agency has long attempted to modernize its retirement information technology. Archuleta has established “a 100-day effort to develop a plan to modernize our IT infrastructure.”

She has hired a chief technology officer, Amen Ra Mashariki, to help find a fix to a messy retirement process that has bedeviled past directors and angered retirees who have had to wait many months before getting their full monthly retirement checks.

“The most important issue is how do we gather data about personnel records, how do we store it and how do we call it up when an individual is ready for retirement,” she said. That might not sound too hard in the digital age, but, she added, “it’s a very complicated process.”

The new multi-state health exchanges so far have escaped the troubles plaguing retirement processing and the Obamacare Web site.

“We haven’t encountered any problems,” Archuleta said.

That’s good because she’ll have plenty of other problems to confront. She plans to do so keeping one particular purpose in mind.

“My goal,” Archuleta said, “is to continue to recognize and honor and champion the federal worker.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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