Kiran Ahuja's to-do list at OPM

Kiran Ahuja, the recently installed director of the Office of Personnel Management, has a host of long-standing agency issues to deal with, along with helping implement governmentwide workforce policy to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management - official photo

The federal government's top human resources official told reporters on an Aug. 4 press call that there isn't a timeline in place for the implementation of the Biden administration's new vaccination policy for federal employees.

Last week, the administration set down a policy that requires federal employees to attest to having been vaccinated against COVID-19 or else be subject to frequent tests in order to check the spread of the coronavirus as it enters a new phase with the emergence of the Delta variant.

"There's been a lot of work in the midst of issuing these model safety principles," Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management, told reporters. "Agencies were already underway in figuring out what their timeline was going to be for reentry and post-reentry. It's going to be really hard to say what the specific timeline is."

More information from the Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce for agencies about Biden's new requirements is forthcoming, Ahuja said, and officials are trying to give agencies flexibility to meet their specific needs in carrying out the guidelines.

"We want agencies to be very purposeful, to really tie themselves to the principles around how they think through what this will look like for not only their agency, but for individual components -- that is going to vary," Ahuja told reporters. She acknowledged that there are "more questions than answers at this point," adding that "folks are hard at work trying to give as much information but also give agencies the flexibility because the workforce differs from agency to agency, even within agencies."

Additionally, federal employee unions are pressing to be included in workplace reentry plans and have expressed strong reservations about a possible vaccine mandate for employees they represent being laid down without bargaining.

"I'll say that what is also emphasized is the union partnership at the agency level and to engage the local unions, to ensure that you are bargaining on those pieces of your reentry that require that type of engagement," Ahuja said.

Longstanding challenges

Ahuja, who was confirmed by the Senate in June arrived at OPM facing challenges not just from the pandemic, but from morale problems stemming from plans made under the Trump administration to merge the agency into the General Services Administration. More generally, the agency has experienced a lack of Senate-confirmed leadership, with just three permanent directors since 2013.

The lack of confirmed leadership has "had a huge impact on the agency," she said. "If you don't have that continuity of leadership, you really can't deal with those larger challenges. I think it definitely affects morale. It affects OPM's positions vis-à-vis other agencies, with [the Office of Management and Budget], to really position the agency."

A March report by the National Academy of Public Administration found that OPM's role in human capital management has diminished over the years as OMB's role has grown, and as acting officials have taken on both positions at once in recent years.

Ahuja, who served as OPM's chief of staff in the wake of the massive personnel records hack in 2015, said that coming back to existing relationships with OPM officials has been helpful.

"I am very well aware that the lack of capacity and people having to work much more to cover two, three jobs is also affecting morale," she said. "And so the ways that we can support our employees through spot awards, through time off as awards, you know, for the work that they're doing. We're trying to think of every possible avenue that we have."

Ahuja said she wants to make a difference on agency morale and deal with long-standing challenges such as the modernization of the paper-based retirement processing system and an exodus of employees in senior positions.

Short term, Ahuja said that the agency is going to deal with current retirement backlogs using tech "sprints." OPM is also going to be piloting an online app for retirement processing and moving into a new contact center, she said. Long term, OPM will have to create a strategic plan and dedicate "dogged leadership attention" over multiple years, something Ahuja said she's committed to seeing through.

"My plan is to be here as long as people will have me," she said.

The future of government work

Ahuja also has her eye on governmentwide priorities to rebuild the workforce, plan for the future workforce and diversify the workforce.

The Biden-Harris administration has proposed hiring surges across several agencies in its fiscal year 2022 budget. Ahuja said that she's interested in ensuring the government has the critical skills it needs and wants to focus on attracting early-career officials to the government.

Ahuja noted that the rapid adoption of telework during the pandemic provides an opportunity to change how federal government work is done. She said that OPM is hearing from agencies that they need guidance on how to support leaders in managing and engaging a remote workforce.

"This pandemic has upended the norms of work and how we think about what work looks like -- and certainly that is having an impact among the federal workforce," she said. There is an "opportunity to really define the future of work."

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