OPM Appointments Mark a Radical Shift in Agency's Role

OPM headquarters in Washington.

OPM headquarters in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The hiring of high-level executives from organized labor marks a return to federal employee unions having a seat at the table in the formulation of federal personnel policy.

The Biden administration last week announced the appointment of half a dozen political officials to the Office of Personnel Management in a move that experts say could position the agency well in its efforts to reassert itself.

The list of non-Senate confirmed political appointees includes a mix of campaign veterans and subject matter experts. Rita Aguilar, senior advisor in the Office of Congressional, Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, was on President Biden’s OPM transition team, and has previously served as a deputy associate attorney general, while Deputy General Counsel Rachel Cotton led the transition team's ethics and compliance efforts. Cotton was previously counsel for the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Biden also appointed Alethea Predeoux to be director of OPM’s Office of Congressional, Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs. Predeoux previously was an executive at the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers, a mark of how the Biden administration hopes to give labor a voice in its decision-making process on federal personnel policy.

“This appointment is further evidence of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to protecting and honoring the federal workforce and elevating the importance of unions,” an OPM spokesperson said.

The hiring spree comes shortly after the release of a study from the National Academy of Public Administration aimed at re-empowering the federal human resources agency. That report found that the agency must reinvent itself to be more data-driven and forward-looking, focused on the future of federal employment in a strategic manner rather than compliance with federal regulations on a transactional basis.

That study also criticized the Trump administration’s use of OPM as a clearing house for nominees awaiting Senate confirmation elsewhere in the federal government, often displacing the agency's career executives in the process. Only one of Biden’s appointees named last week—Peter Bonner—will lead an agency program office, although he has extensive experience in human resources.

Before joining OPM, Bonner was a consultant on management issues for federal agencies, including on matters such as human capital assessment, process improvement and performance management of senior executives. He holds a master’s degree in human resources development.

Don Kettl, Sid Richardson professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, said that all of Biden’s appointees to OPM so far have gotten high marks from academics and human resources experts. He thinks they have the skills necessary to address OPM’s long term challenges, although their prospects for success remain uncertain.

“The big questions are how will they gel as a team to pursue an aggressive agenda, and will there be a broader long-term agenda driving it, rather than the more fractionated efforts of the past where the whole winds up being less the sum of its parts?” Kettl said. “They’re very good people, but can they gel together to make it happen, and what will their strategic focus be?”

Kettl said the new OPM leadership team’s performance will be critical for the success not only of Biden’s agenda, but for the survival of OPM.

“There’s no doubt that OPM is an agency that’s in serious trouble from the right’s continuing effort to try to, if not obliterate OPM, break it into pieces so that it is less powerful, largely in order to weaken the role of unions,” he said. “And on the left, there’s a growing sense that the agency just hasn’t worked the way it was intended, and maybe we should shut it down and try again if it doesn’t work this time. So the conversation I’ve heard is that this is, in essence, OPM’s last stand.”