OPM puts agencies on notice about hiring politicals for civil service jobs

The federal government's HR agency put up a caution flag about hiring former political appointees for career jobs, as Congress weighs in on the practice of current politicals "burrowing in" to the civil service.

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The federal government's human resources agency put up a caution flag about hiring former political appointees to career jobs in government.

Kathleen McGettigan, then acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, announced in a February 23 memo that agencies seeking to hire former political appointees to career competitive service jobs will have to first obtain permission. (Trump appointee Jeff Pon, was confirmed by the Senate to lead OPM on a voice vote on March 8.)

Written authorization from OPM is required to hire individuals for career jobs who are serving or have served as political appointees within the last five years. This group includes appointees to political posts under Schedule A, Schedule C or other special authorities.

"Although political appointees may not be excluded from consideration for federal jobs because of their political affiliation, they must not be given preference or special advantages," McGettigan said.

The practice of political appointees being converted to civil service employees, often referred to as "burrowing in," has attracted significant attention from Congress and policymakers in recent years, although data suggests it isn't a widespread practice.

OPM policy has been trending toward clamping down on hiring political appointees to career positions since a 2009 memo from former agency head John Berry. The new policy tightens up approvals of political appointees moving into career jobs to comport with the 2016 Transitions Improvements Act.

Separately, the House of Representatives passed a bill to require agency heads to sign off on requests to convert political appointees to career posts as "necessary for the agency to meet its mission." Without such a request, political appointees face a two-year "cooling off" period before a being eligible for a career job in the federal government. The bipartisan Political Appointee Burrowing Prevention Act is designed to "force agencies to use political conversions as a measure of last resort," according to the bill's report language.

The bill passed March 6 on a voice vote.

"This is not as big a problem as people might think it is," said Jeff Neal, a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and currently senior vice president at ICF. "When a Republican is in the White House, Democrats complain about burrowing in. When a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans complain. The reality is we're talking about very small numbers of appointments," said Neal, who blogs on federal hiring and workforce management practices.

According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, OPM approved 78 of 99 requests for such conversions between January 2010 and March 2016. The Department of Justice made the most such requests, with 10 over the period of the report. Multiple agencies made just one request over the six-year period.