U.S. personnel boss Kiran Ahuja faces lingering post-pandemic challenges

Kiran Ahuja, official portrait. Photo: Office of Personnel Management (OPM.gov)

Uncle Sam likes to think of himself as the best boss.

The Office of Personnel Management seeks to confirm that status by “positioning the federal government to lead by example at a time when the future of work is being redefined. As the largest employer in the United States, the federal government has the opportunity to serve as a model employer for other sectors to follow.”

It’s a big task outlined in an OPM fact sheet marking Kiran Ahuja’s first year as the government’s top personnel officer. It’s not an easy job. Ahuja is the longest serving Senate-confirmed OPM director since 2015 – with only one year in office – a fact that complicates her work.

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“That’s not really something to celebrate,” she told a news briefing Thursday. “But I think it speaks to kind of the challenges the agency has had over the past number of years and the importance of having good, solid leadership in these positions in these institutions.”

For OPM’s initial challenge, Ahuja looks within. Rejuvenating her agency after President Donald Trump tried to dismantle it is a major task. His unsuccessful proposal would have transferred major OPM duties to the General Services Administration and the White House, an effort critics said would have politicized the federal workforce.

Even with good leadership, significant workforce issues continue to confront the federal government and its more than 2 million employees.

But first, some good news, from the fact sheet’s “major accomplishments” of Ahuja’s brief tenure, including:

Pushing President Joe Biden’s “Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce.” It helps, OPM said, to “strengthen agencies’ ability 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 “increased pay for over 67,000 federal employees in every state in the country.” The action “has provided a myriad of benefits to the federal government, ranging from improved recruitment to greater retention and increased productivity.”

Issuing multiple hiring strategies “aimed at rebuilding the federal workforce,” such as increased paid internships and efforts to recruit postsecondary students and college graduates into jobs paying up to $72,000.

Updating telework by developing “toolkits and resources that provided agencies the support needed to safely transition the federal workforce to a hybrid work environment.”

Resetting labor relations and encouraging union organizing. “OPM is proud to work on behalf of the Biden-Harris Administration on this government-wide effort to remove barriers and obstacles in federal workplaces which impede unions’ ability to strengthen union density and inform civil servants about their collective bargaining rights.”

Yet, despite wide-ranging Biden administration efforts in support of the federal workforce, in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s posture, employee engagement scores are going in the wrong direction.

OPM’s 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows the overall engagement score, an approximate measure of morale, rose under Trump, including in his last year, then dropped one point under Biden. Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that studies the federal government, attributed the increase under Trump to the government’s speedy move to telework during the coronavirus pandemic. The decline in the engagement score under Biden, Stier said, reflects a return to federal facilities that “has been bumpy” and has “taken a toll on the morale of the workforce.”

Also bumpy has been Biden’s effort to reset labor relations – a general accomplishment that has doubters in some agencies. While praising Biden and Ahuja, federal labor leaders are critical of some agency 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 implementing the Biden [policy] on collective bargaining continues and the agency faces no consequences for retaining much of what it took away from its workforce during the Trump administration.”

Responding, a statement from the Social Security Administration said the agency “has complied with all of the administration’s labor policies and is fully committed to positive relations with our labor partners. . . . We are currently engaged in settlement discussions with AFGE to renegotiate contract provisions and resolve other matters of interest.”

Ahuja praised soon-to-be-implemented pay raises that were approved for wildland firefighters in November, after a long wait that drew the ire of the National Federation of Federal Employees. She called the raises an “incredible milestone . . . long overdue, admittedly, but we have a new occupational series in place that will set a very clear path for these individuals to have a . . . sustainable and prosperous career in the federal government.”

Matt Biggs, the president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, wants the administration to make labor-management partnerships mandatory, instead of simply encouraged. Unlike under the Obama administration, the partnerships, which facilitate workplace communications, “have not been officially required,” Biggs said, and there is no government-wide forum where labor and management issues are discussed.

OPM did not directly respond to questions about the 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 federal labor unions.”

“There are around 2,000 bargaining units representing over 1.2 million federal employees so work remains in resetting labor-management relations across the Executive Branch,” the statement said. “OPM will continue to work with unions and agencies in addressing challenges related to implementation of the Administration’s policies on labor-management relations.”

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