OPM Just Made It Harder to Drain the Swamp

No administration can drain the swamp if it doesn’t know where to look.

President Donald Trump took office with a promise to drain the swamp, but the federal agency that manages the government’s two million civilian employees is making it harder to do that. Under a new policy, the Office of Personnel Management recently stopped reporting data on employees terminated for wrongdoing or poor performance.

This information is critical because the data inform the public about incompetent and, in some cases, corrupt government employees. Without it, systematic government wrongdoing and poor performance may go unnoticed and unreformed.

The data provide information on separations, which, in bureaucratic language, is when a federal employee stops working for the government. OPM assigns a cause to each separation, choosing from a list of 12 different categories—such as death or a transfer­—and releases these details annually, along with information on employees’ age, rank, pay, and other characteristics.

That’s where the latest policy change comes into effect. A termination for discipline or poor performance is coded as “SI, Termination or Removal (Discipline/Performance).” But that information was not included in OPM’s 2016 separations data. Every other separations category, in alphabetical order from “SA, Transfer Out” to “SL, Other Separation,” was retained in the 2016 dataset.

While OPM publishes guides with the separations datasets that explain the contents of the newly released information, the guide for the 2016 separations data, unlike every previous year’s guide, makes no mention of terminations for discipline or performance.

When I contacted OPM in July, a public affairs official explained this hole in the agency’s otherwise orderly set of separations data as necessary to “protect information at the individual record level” based on a 2007 memo that laid out federal guidelines for protecting the personally identifiable information of Americans.

That explanation defies logic. These datasets have never included the names of the terminated individuals. If protecting the personally identifiable information of federal employees was the real reason for not reporting terminations for discipline or performance, then why is the gender, location, agency and occupation, rank, salary, and other information about these employees available for every termination prior to 2016 (and for every other separation in that year)?

Publishing this information about terminated federal employees does not violate anyone’s privacy. But withholding it keeps taxpayers in the dark about the extent of personnel problem in the agencies they fund. For example, OPM’s data allows us to know about federal employees fired for misconduct, such as Border Patrol agents fired after convictions for bribery and drug charges. If these employees had lost their jobs in 2016, the current OPM policy would not list their terminations under the discipline and performance category, and we’d have no idea how widespread such firings are.

No administration can drain the swamp if it doesn’t know where to look. OPM once provided valuable information on discipline, performance, and corruption problems in federal agencies. As it is, it’s notoriously difficult to fire federal employees. But neglecting to report information on federal employees who are fired for serious reasons makes it impossible to reform the federal bureaucracy.

Originally published on Government Executive


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