By Anjali Patel, Esq., cyberFEDS® Legal Editor Washington Bureau
OCTOBER 9 -- Days after it was announced that Office of Personnel Management Director Dr. Jeff Pon was leaving the agency and being replaced by the Office of Management and Budget's Margaret Weichert, speculation continues as to what prompted the move.
OPM referred questions to the White House, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Many are still shocked by the abrupt change in leadership and said it could have been related to the administration's desire to move the policymaking functions of OPM to the Executive Office of the President. A Republican Senate staffer also said it could be that Pon differed with the White House on some of the changes it was pushing.
While most experts agree that having Weichert serve as both OPM acting director and in her role as OMB deputy director for management was a logical choice given her involvement with the administration's President's Management Agenda and government reform efforts, others questioned why OPM Deputy Director Michael Rigas was not tapped to temporarily run the agency.
The Federal Practice Group's Debra D'Agostino said "Dr. Pon apparently voiced his reasonable concern that the administration's civil service reform initiative, particularly moving retirement processing to GSA and personnel policy to OMB, violates the plain language of the Civil Service Reform Act, which established OPM and dictates its functions." She was concerned that "the goal of inserting OMB Deputy Director in the position of OPM's Acting Director is to railroad over this legal concern and press ahead with the initiative, regardless of its legality, since Weichert is the reported designer of the initiative." The "entire purpose of the civil service will be frustrated" if OPM's personnel policy function is transferred to OMB, which is part of the White House, because the "whole point of a civil service is to have apolitical workers in place to carry out the federal government's functions, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office," D'Agostino said.
A source with experience working with employee organizations said he was disappointed with Pon's exit, calling him "the best OPM director since I've been here," especially in the area of federal management. He also said it was likely that Pon was forced out, saying that despite administration hints to the contrary, there was tension between those with experience in personnel policies and management and those who had "ideas that sometimes weren't so good." While it is too early to tell whether Weichert will move to OPM permanently, he said such a move would probably strengthen the role of OMB in government oversight efforts.
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said the union hopes it "can establish a positive working relationship with OPM under Acting Director Weichert" and looks "forward to advocating the current and future needs of the federal workforce with her."
NTEU, however, remains concerned that "the administration's reorganization plan to move OPM's core employee policy role to the White House will improperly diminish the independence of the civil service," he said, adding that the White House and OMB "already maintain robust workforce management and policy divisions as appropriate, and removing the necessary and purposeful independence of OPM is unwise."
Reardon said that "in order to have a merit-based, career civil service outside of the political appointee process, it must be headed and overseen by an independent authority."
Federal labor relations and management expert Robert Tobias told cyberFEDS® that moving forward, no matter who runs OPM, "the first issue is whether the White House can reorganize OPM without Congressional approval, and, if required, can it be obtained."
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the "departure of Director Pon is unfortunate and leaves OPM without a permanent leader when the agency needs it most."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he looked forward to working with Weichert going forward.
"Weichert has been a strong leader while developing the President's Management Agenda and the Administration's proposals to reorganize and create efficiencies across the federal government," Gowdy said. "Her ability to engage with various stakeholders in the management space is a valuable skill that will serve her well in her new role."
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