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Fresh Take: Appoint, Resign, Repeat, Fixation on Firing Feds: Part III

OPM has always limped along with an embarrassing lack of system security and an overabundance of archaic, 1990s-era technology. But at its root, OPM has a people problem ...

It’s amazing how quickly $600 million can vanish.

At a June 2013 hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, the Office of Personnel Management disclosed that it had $600 million in carryover funding. Rejecting the subcommittee’s suggestion that the funds were profits from its fee-for-service businesses, OPM's representative told the panel that the money was a necessary carryover of funds should OPM one day abandon its HR services line of business.

Ah, OPM wasn’t hoarding more than half-a-billion dollars, it was wisely preparing an emergency fund!

Flash forward two years, one emergency, and the memo bomb OPM acting Director Beth Cobert just laid on federal agencies in the wake of OPM’s massive data breach.

“Given the limited resources available to OPM at this time to deal with a contract of this size, agencies will be asked to contribute FY 2015 funding to cover the first full year’s costs of credit monitoring and related services/benefits for the second incident involving 21.5M individuals,” Cobert wrote in a email obtained by The Washington Post and published July 21.

Limited resources available? What happened to the $600 million?

Meet the new boss at OPM. Same as the old boss and the one before that. OPM has always limped along with an embarrassing lack of system security and an overabundance of archaic, 1990s-era technology. But at its root, OPM has a people problem.

Cobert was appointed July 11, one day after Katherine Archuleta resigned as OPM’s director. Archuleta needed to go, but not for OPM’s matador cybersecurity strategy and subsequent data loss catastrophe.

While Archuleta seemed over her head in discussing and giving any account of OPM performance, repetitive, scripted assurances have always been de rigueur for OPM. But this scandalous crisis finally laid bare the agency’s charade—namely the $2 billion revenue stream created by OPM’s Revolving Fund—and substantiated the claim that OPM stands for “Other People’s Money,” a claim now reinforced by Cobert’s pain-spreading email to agencies.

Archuleta followed John Berry at OPM. Each was a blank slate with no idea how to manage an agency that amasses billions annually providing duplicative HR software, systems, and services to other federal agencies. First Berry and OPM’s “floodgates for innovation,” which led to the ill-fated launch, and subsequent crashes, of USAJOBS 3.0. Then Archuleta, who appointed unseasoned politicals to serious management positions, inviting the potential for catastrophe. Sooner or later, inexperience and lack of credibility take over.

Those in Congress who argue that some functions are “inherently governmental”—despite the fact that private-sector companies are more experienced, agile, accountable and infinitely cheaper than OPM and its endless cascade of chargebacks to agencies—they need to reset the idea of what constitutes the hiring or appointment of capable individuals.

OPM’s people problem has made simple programs, like hiring process reform, a political campaign instead of a serious effort to drive a strategic change and create efficiencies. OPM’s people problem has created an autocratic audit process that damages agencies by revoking hiring authority and focusing on greater profits for its own HR products and services through agencies’ protection-money purchases. OPM’s people problem has allowed it to mandate agency reliance on quaint, vintage technology resting on 1990s PeopleSoft HR systems and COBOL-era payroll engines.

OPM Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland knows the agency’s people problem well. During a hearing in 2013, McFarland predicted the calamity playing out today.

“Every major federal agency purchases goods and/or services from OPM through the Revolving Fund programs,” McFarland testified. “Consequently, the impact of problems within the OPM Revolving Fund programs is not confined to OPM, but rather ripples through the entire federal government.”

Once the security breach traversed from OPM systems in the Department of Interior environment to OPM’s background investigations systems, EPIC and e-QIP, in its own offices, McFarland’s statement unfortunately has emerged as both ironic and true.

OPM's breathtaking lack of accountability was back on display in the midst of furor over OPM’s data breach. Called to a White House meeting on “hiring reform,” federal agency representatives were subjected to an OPM hard sell on buying more of the software, systems, and services that were just shown to be a complete security failure.

And now—rather than trim back its operations to pay for its colossal cybersecurity blunder—OPM wants to impose what amounts to a three-year tax on its customers. As McFarland noted in 2013, OPM is very experienced at financial gymnastics.

“[OPM] is constantly developing and marketing new services and reorganizing its operations to adapt and compete with other providers of similar services,” McFarland told Congress.

So where’s the accountability? Sure, you can fire political appointees—or promote them to ambassador. You can hoard $600 million you illegally carry over from one fiscal year to the next—then blame the entire government for your security breach and charge its agencies to fix security vulnerabilities you’ve known about for years. And you can keep putting the unqualified into top jobs as a form of patronage.

Or you can fix the people problem that continues to preserve the status quo and lack of leadership at OPM. Billions are vanishing.


Linda Brooks Rix, founder and co-CEO of Avue Technologies, is a blogger, veterans advocate and federal human capital management expert.

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