Kiran Ahuja’s first year as OPM chief marked by post-pandemic challenges
It’s a big task outlined in an OPM fact sheet marking Kiran Ahuja’s first year as a senior government personnel official. It’s not an easy job. Ahuja is the longest-serving Senate-confirmed OPM director since 2015 — with just a year in the job — a fact that complicates her job.
“It’s not really something to celebrate,” she said at a press conference Thursday. “But I think it’s kind of a testament to the challenges that the agency has faced over the past few years and the importance of having good, strong leadership in those positions in those institutions.”
For OPM’s initial challenge, Ahuja looks within. Rejuvenating his agency after President Donald Trump tried to dismantle it is a major task. His unsuccessful proposal would have transferred key OPM functions to the General Services Administration and the White House, an effort that critics say politicized the federal workforce.
Even with good leadership, significant labor issues continue to plague the federal government and its more than 2 million employees.
But first, some good news, among the “major accomplishments” in Ahuja’s brief tenure fact sheet, including:
- Pushing President Biden’s “Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce.” This helps, the OPM said, to “strengthen the ability of agencies to recruit, hire, develop, promote and retain our nation’s talent and remove barriers to equal opportunity.”
- Implementing a federal government-wide $15 minimum wage, which “raised the wages of more than 67,000 federal employees in every state across the country.” The action “provided a myriad of benefits to the federal government, ranging from improved recruitment to greater retention and increased productivity.”
- Issue several hiring strategies “aimed at rebuilding the federal workforce,” such as increasing paid internships and efforts to recruit post-secondary students and college graduates into jobs paying up to $72,000 .
- Update remote work by developing “toolkits and resources that have provided agencies with the support needed to safely transition the federal workforce to a hybrid work environment.”
- Reset labor relations and encourage unionization. “OPM is proud to work on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration in this whole-of-government effort to break down barriers and impediments in federal workplaces that impede unions’ ability to build union density and inform workers. civil servants of their collective bargaining rights.
Yet despite the Biden administration’s far-reaching efforts to bolster the federal workforce, in stark contrast to the Trump administration posture, employee engagement scores are going in the wrong direction.
The OPM’s 2021 Federal Employee Views Survey shows that the overall engagement score, a proxy measure of morale, rose under Trump, including in his senior year, then fell by a point under Biden. Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that studies the federal government, attributed the increase under Trump to the government’s rapid shift to working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. The drop in the engagement score under Biden, Stier said, reflects a return to federal facilities that “has been bumpy” and “weighed on workforce morale.”
Biden’s efforts to reset labor relations have also been bumpy — a general achievement that has doubts in some agencies. While praising Biden and Ahuja, federal labor leaders are critical of some agencies’ implementation of the administration’s workplace policies.
An email from the American Federation of Government Employees said, for example, that “Social Security’s complete intransigence on the implementation of the Biden [policy] on collective bargaining continues and the agency faces no consequences for retaining much of what it stripped from its workforce under the Trump administration.
In response, a statement from the Social Security Administration said the agency “has complied with all administration labor policies and is fully committed to positive relationships with our labor partners.” … We are currently engaged in settlement discussions with AFGE to renegotiate contract terms and resolve other issues of interest.
Ahuja hailed the soon-to-be-implemented wage increases that were approved for wildland firefighters in November, after a long wait that drew anger from the National Federation of Federal Employees. She called the increases an “incredible milestone…long overdue, yes, but we have a new professional series in place that will set a very clear path for these individuals to have careers…sustainable and successful within the federal government.”
Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, wants the administration to make labor-management partnerships mandatory, instead of just encouraging them. Unlike the Obama administration, the partnerships, which facilitate workplace communications, “have not been formally required,” Biggs said, and there is no whole-of-government forum where labor issues. work and management are discussed.
The OPM did not respond directly to questions about partnerships, but said in a statement after the briefing that it is “committed to helping the Biden-Harris administration write a new chapter of engagement with unions. federal”.
“There are approximately 2,000 bargaining units representing more than 1.2 million federal employees, so there remains work to be done to reset labor-management relations across the executive branch,” the statement said. “OPM will continue to work with unions and agencies to address challenges in implementing the administration’s policies on labor-management relations.”