Office of Personnel Management

Redefine the Mission and Role of the Office of Personnel Management

OPM03: Change the Culture of OPM to Empower its Staff and Increase its Customer Orientation


Congress intended that the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) would "provide federal agencies with more authority and flexibility because it recognized that agencies bear primary responsibility for personnel management."(1) This authority has clearly not been delegated and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is still viewed as holding many of the controls that keep agencies from exercising the personnel authority that CSRA promised.

A recent assessment views OPM as having "attempted to move out of a role as a control agency and, instead, to reach out to serve the personnel needs of the wide range of federal departments and agencies. While a step forward, this shift in role has been limited. The relationships between OPM and agencies are devised as highly technical conversations between personnel specialists. Rarely were they linked to substantive policies for change."(2)

The current policy for change in the Clinton/Gore administration clearly calls for skills of collaboration and coordination across agency lines and within OPM itself. Changing from roles of technical specialists to facilitators of government change will be difficult for many employees in OPM.

Need for Change

Regardless of whether OPM refocuses its mission, restructures, or rightsizes, its real success will occur only to the extent that the OPM staff values the new direction and has the skills to perform OPM's new roles. Few would argue with the statement that the civil service system is "an administratively moribund system that disallows the exercise of human judgment and discretion."(3) Any judgment and discretion that is left often falls to personnel specialists who must attempt to interpret regulations in an extremely technical system.

This has created a "gulf between cultures--that is, between line managers and personnel professionals--that produces adversarial relationships."(4) Personnel specialists throughout government have become technicians with expertise in interpreting and applying rules and regulations. OPM, because of the volume of federal personnel regulations, has had to devote considerable resources to being able to provide such technical interpretations to support agencies. This has caused two sets of dependencies. First, agencies have come to see OPM as the super-expert charged with interpreting the Federal Personnel Manual, laws, and regulations. Second, many OPM staff members have come to believe that their careers are dependent on in- depth knowledge of laws and regulations. This is all probably true; how-ever, it will make change at both the agency and OPM staff levels extremely difficult.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) found that OPM has "serious internal problems, and a diminished capacity to implement its initiatives."(5) In the same study, GAO identified management and morale problems. The following recommendations provide some suggestions for OPM to consider as it attempts to change its culture and help its staff assume new roles.


1. Use OPM's internal culture change effort as a model for the rest of government. (1)

OPM has already recognized the need for change, under a new vision for OPM that will include the creation of a "work environment based on trust, commitment, participation, labor-management cooperation, and respect for employees as people, not just workers."(6) The changes OPM is embarking on will not be easy; they will involve downsizing and most likely some significant reorganization. OPM leadership will have to create a collaborative approach to this change. Success in OPM's change effort will enable OPM staff to have a more effective leadership role in governmentwide and agency culture change and reinvention initiatives.

The role of OPM as a leader of the federal public service demands that external stakeholders as well as internal staff be involved in the change process. A long-term strategy will be needed. Both understanding and commitment will be essential.

2. Use a variety of interagency groups to involve OPM's external stakeholders in changing federal human resource systems. (1)

The director of OPM should consider using the concept of virtual organizations as a primary thrust of OPM's new leadership role. Virtual organizations provide a different way of developing policies and obtaining consensus on new directions where multiple stakeholders are involved. They do not rely on the traditional hierarchical organization structures; rather, they involve cross-agency links where people and functions have common concerns. As a result, virtual organizations can serve as networks that help balance agencies' needs and desires for independence with OPM's leadership role of creating cooperative interdependence. This means that virtual organizations can provide better opportunities to use a wider range of methods for achieving agreement on new directives. Negotiated rulemaking is one such method.

OPM has already made significant strides in involving the federal personnel community in rethinking human resource systems. The National Academy of Public Administration believes that more must be done to move to a point where managers accept new roles in managing human resources. Specifically, "[e]ach major organization in the federal government . . . should have a Council on Federal Resources Management. The councils should be composed of top leaders, managers, employees, and employee representatives at the appropriate level."(7) These councils will be involved in developing an agency's organizational and business strategic plan. OPM should consider supporting such efforts as part of its leadership role.

The National Performance Review (NPR) recommendations provide the Director of OPM with opportunities to take a personal role through involvement in a number of interagency groups, which may become virtual organizations. These include the President's Management Council and the National Partnership Council. All of these initiatives put line management at the forefront of change in the executive branch. They also provide opportunities for modeling OPM's new leadership role for building consensus for change and applying negotiated rulemaking techniques.

Regardless of the direction OPM takes, it may derive two benefits by placing more decisionmaking authority in the hands of interagency groups and task forces: more agency ownership of decisions that affect agencies, and a diminished perception of OPM as a controller and regulator of agency behavior.

This approach will require OPM to take on more coordinative and collaborative roles. Staff will have to have the ability to broker relationships across agencies and develop advisory or interactive mechanisms for resolving common problems. Developing computerized information networks, facilitating teamwork, providing research findings, and sharing best practices will become essential.

3. Improve OPM's policymaking process through experimental use of negotiated rulemaking. (1)

The typical process for developing governmentwide human resource policies and rules involves a set of sequential steps including initial drafting by OPM staff; distribution for comment by agencies, unions, and other stakeholders; redrafting; publication in the Federal Register and receipt of public comments; and final drafting, often followed by additional distribution for comment prior to publication as a final rule. On a major policy issue, this process is time consuming and does not guarantee that the interests of all affected parties are represented and taken into consideration.

Negotiated rulemaking uses alternative dispute resolution techniques to improve rulemaking by forming a committee made up of representatives of affected interests to negotiate a proposed rule with the assistance of a trained facilitator. The objectives of reg- neg are to reduce the time and expense of rulemaking and to produce more acceptable and workable rules.

This process obviously would not be appropriate in all cases, particularly on controversial issues; however, the potential for improving customer satisfaction with human resource systems makes experimentation worthwhile. In connection with implementation of NPR recommendations, OPM should select one or more policy program areas (where legislation is not required) to test the effectiveness of negotiated rulemaking.

A public forum for soliciting comments is especially important on major policy issues because it ensures that stakeholders are made aware of proposed rules, have the chance to review them, and go on record with their comments. OPM should continue to use interagency groups, such as the Interagency Advisory Group, as a way to involve OPM's external stakeholders in the process of changing federal human resource systems.

4. Develop programs to help OPM and agency personnel specialists broaden their customer focus. (1)

One key method for both changing the OPM culture and supporting collaboration with agencies is through employee rotation programs. The Director of OPM should state as a matter of policy that a certain percentage of OPM professional positions will be filled on a rotational basis by agency, state, or local government personnel, or line managers. These positions will be filled on a three- to five- year reimbursable rotational basis. In addition, the director should set as a goal that all OPM staff will acquire some experience in a department or agency and that, in the future, most employees will have work experience in other organizations prior to working at OPM. This will have the added value of gaining fresh viewpoints from all agencies, and it will provide another method of developing agency staffs. Such a program will also encourage mobility, which provides additional opportunities to create culture change in the Federal Government. As OPM's role changes over time, a concerted effort needs to be made to expand the skills and orientation of the OPM staff through training and career development.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Improving Customer Service, ICS01: Create Customer-Driven Programs in All Departments and Agencies that Provide Services Directly to the Public.

Improving Regulatory Systems, REG03: Encourage Consensus-Based Rulemaking.

Reinventing Human Resources Management, HRM13: Form Labor-Management Partnerships for Success.


1. U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Managing Human Resources: Greater Leadership Needed to Address Critical Challenges, GAO/GGD-89- 19 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, January 1989), p. 28.

2. Radin, Beryl A., Professor, University of Southern California, "Some OPM Transition Issues," Washington, D.C., November 1992, p. 1.

3. Horner, Constance, "Beyond Mr. Gradgrind: The Case For Deregulating the Public Sector," Policy Review (Spring 1988), p. 35.

4. Perry, James L., "Strategic Human Resources Management: Transforming Federal Civil Service to Meet Future Challenges," Bloomington, IN, March 1993, p. 5.

5. GAO, p. 6.

6. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Human Resources Management for the 21st Century (Washington, D.C., May 1993), pp. 12-13.

7. National Academy of Public Administration, Leading People in Change: Empowerment, Commitment, Accountability (Washington, D.C., April 1993), p. xv.

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