The Trump administration claims OPM cannot function properly without revenue from the National Background Investigations Bureau.
Nearly a year after the Trump administration announced its proposal to send the bulk of the Office of Personnel Management’s functions to the General Services Administration, acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert said Tuesday that she will be submitting proposed legislation to Congress authorizing the merger “hopefully by Friday.”
Speaking with reporters, Weichert said that the legislation would transfer the legal authorities currently provided to OPM to an as-yet-unnamed office within GSA, akin to its existing Federal Acquisition and Public Buildings services. Additionally, the bill would create a small policy-focused personnel office within the Executive Office of the President, modeled after the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
“GSA has that structure, that framework, and is also a known expert in IT contracting and procurement, and that is a critical element in supporting the mission of OPM going forward,” she said. “We’re not structured to invest in world class operational excellence. The backlogs in terms of hiring, background checks and retirement processing, those are all endemic to our structure, and throwing money at the problem doesn’t fundamentally fix how we get after shared services support structures.”
A document outlining Weichert’s justification for the merger provided to Government Executive stated that the government’s HR agency lacks sufficient resources or technological capabilities to handle its duties alone. The administration cited the 2015 OPM data breach as an example of structural vulnerabilities within the agency.
“Despite the criticality of its mission, OPM is not currently structured or resourced sufficiently to maintain its mission in a sustainable, secure, and financially stable or sustainable way moving forward,” the document said. “In other words, the status quo is not viable. The disastrous large scale data breach experienced by OPM in 2015 is an illustration of what is at stake.”
The administration did not elaborate about the source of these woes, but said conditions will be worsened by Congress’ decision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to send the agency’s background investigations functions to the Defense Department. President Trump finalized the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau through an executive order last month.
The background investigations bureau “accounts for more than 80% of OPM’s revolving fund resources,” the document said. “This decision [to transfer it to Defense] will dramatically undercut OPM’s ability to operate and maintain the systems that support the federal civilian workforce, greatly increasing the risk of another failure on a scale as large as or larger than the data breach.”
Although background investigations currently account for a significant amount of OPM’s workload, it is unclear that the move of those operations to the Pentagon will affect the rest of the agency’s duties. For nearly two decades, OPM farmed out the bulk of its security clearance work to contractor U.S. Investigative Services, until a data breach at that company led to the agency terminating the contract in 2014. And OPM did not officially create the National Background Investigations Bureau until 2016.
Weichert said she “can’t speak to that circumstance,” but said that the departure of NBIB revenues will create a $70 million budget shortfall for OPM, and a greater “tech debt” that would impede IT modernization.
In a statement Tuesday, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox accused the Trump administration of engineering some of the problems that it now cites as justification for dismantling OPM.
“By divesting OPM of its responsibility to conduct background investigations on federal employees and contractors, the Trump administration has created the crisis it is now using to justify abolishing OPM,” Cox said. “[This] administration is clearly following a ‘ready, shoot, aim’ strategy built on misleading everyone about its motivations. Congress must prevent this reckless move in order to protect OPM from this irresponsible plan.”
In its document, the administration argued that aligning OPM and GSA would develop “synergies around people, facilities and contracts,” producing efficiencies that could result in savings of between $11 million and $37 million annually, although it provided no details about how those figures were calculated.
The document argued that GSA could help guide OPM in its effort to modernize its aging IT infrastructure, which the administration said in some cases relies on systems dating back to the early 1980s.
“GSA’s position as a trusted leader and valued partner in helping improve agencies’ use of information technology is bolstered by its B+ grade on the latest [Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act] scorecard, the highest in the federal government,” the administration wrote. “Additionally, GSA has spent the past decade focused on qualitatively and quantitatively improving its own shared CXO functions, so it is well positioned to support OPM.”
This story was updated following an OPM press conference.