The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) could see its responsibilities and workforce siphoned off to other agencies over the next few years, according to a supplement of the White House’s proposed 2020 budget released Monday. The proposal would shift OPM’s workforce strategy functions to the Executive Office of the President, background investigation responsibilities to the Defense Department (DoD) and all other remaining functions to the General Services Administration (GSA).
As it stands, OPM is the foremost human resources branch within the federal government, whose civilian workforce stands at 2.1 million.
Murmurs about a GSA-OPM merger have floated around government, and in June 2018, the administration released the “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century” plan, which endorsed major shifts in agency structures, including the transferring of specific OPM functions to GSA and DoD.
The document released Monday, however, offers a far more comprehensive view of President Donald Trump’s vision for the federal workforce and OPM, hinting at the eventual dissolution of the human resources and workforce-focused office.
Citing inefficient processes and “high-risk” human capital, the 2020 budget includes plans to transfer five specific functions that currently reside under OPM’s purview.
First, federal workforce policy would be developed at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) within a new office. The office would receive shared input from GSA.
All OPM transactional duties, furthermore, would be moved to GSA, meaning that federal retirement and benefits would be handled from a new wing. Oversight functions would also be allotted to GSA, as would OPM’s Merit System Accountability and Compliance division, which “ensures federal agency human resources programs are effective and meet merit system principles and related civil service requirements.”
Finally, the National Background Investigations Bureau at OPM would fully slide under DoD’s umbrella, completing a long-awaited request from the president.
“There is widespread acknowledgment that OPM and the federal employment system, as both are currently structured, are archaic in many significant respects and do not reflect the realities of the contemporary workforce,” the budget document, titled “Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2020,” reads.
The new document reports that 80 percent of OPM’s workforce and services are dedicated to transactional activities, marginalizing critical policy and oversight functions.
While some OPM duties have already been moved elsewhere, the executive branch does not have the sole authority to restructure government. A Congressional Research Service report in 2017 reported that the President has the authority and reach to restructure executive organizations, including offices and agencies.
However, large-scale moves require Congressional approval and funding, and Congress has established certain rules to limit the extent of presidential powers in this capacity.
“The President has often played a leadership role in reorganization of the executive branch by transmitting proposals and advocating legislative action in public statements and private negotiations,” the report read. “Presidents and their appointed agency heads also have a variety of administrative tools at their disposal for making structural and procedural organizational changes that are not in conflict with statutes.”
Small-scale motions, put into action by the June “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations” document, are already paving the steps for an OPM move. GSA established a GSA-OPM Merger Project Management Office in November 2018 to handle human resources-related transfers.
What these shifts in government structure would mean for employees is unclear. Most OPM employees would move with their specific offices to new branches, such as to DoD, a move already reflected in the budget document.
However, the budget also asks agencies to look into incorporating technologies such as artificial intelligence AI into the workforce to automate transactional jobs. The document seems to suggest that this could further reduce the civilian workforce, which declined over the past year.
“Agencies will continue to examine their workforces to determine what jobs they need to accomplish their missions, in light of technological changes that automate
transactional processes, artificial intelligence (AI) that can streamline compliance and regulatory processes, online and telephone chat-bots that can improve customer service, and other tools that may reduce agency personnel needs,” reads the budget.
Trump’s 2020 budget requests $850 million for AI investments at the Energy Department (DOE), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Science Foundation (NSF). The money will directly support the American AI Initiative, an executive order issued by Trump last month that was criticized for an immediate lack of funding.
Further examining federal workforce reforms, the administration’s budget also prioritizes improving labor-management relations, utilizing data in leadership and streamlining federal hiring and firing processes.
GovLoop will offer further reporting on the President’s 2020 budget proposal, which can be read here.