Most of those reforms — notably the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the approval of plans to develop new personnel systems for nearly a million employees there and at the Defense Department — occurred in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks, unimaginable just two months earlier when James was confirmed by the Senate, had a profound effect on the federal work force and elevated OPM’s role in national security and emergency response.
James played a key role in helping craft new pay and personnel rules for the Homeland Security and Defense departments while ensuring those agencies didn’t stray from the merit system principles that underlie the civil service system. In March, James took issue with proposed Pentagon changes to hiring and reduction-in-force rules, saying in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they would significantly diminish veterans preference rights. The following month, the Pentagon announced it was going back to the drawing board to rethink the proposed reforms.
“There’s always a tension — and I believe it’s a good tension, a necessary tension, an important tension — between reform and transformation and the core values of the American civil service, the principles,” James said in a Jan. 12 interview with Federal Times.
James also directed a major reorganization within OPM that streamlined the number of people reporting directly to her, consolidated OPM’s functions within four business divisions and gave agencies a single place to go within OPM for help with key personnel matters. Toward the end of her term, James struck a deal with Rumsfeld to transfer to OPM more than 1,800 employees at the Defense Security Service (DSS) who perform background checks for Defense employees and contractors.
Officials who worked with James on those issues and others credited her forthrightness and inclusiveness. Even in an administration many see as hostile to organized labor, James won praise from union leaders for seeking out their views.
“Kay Coles James has always had a consistent open-door policy in regard to talking with our union representatives,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, added, “While we did not always agree, it was a pleasure to work with her.”
James decided to leave now to explore private-sector opportunities where she could still contribute to public policy issues. Before joining OPM, James was a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. She was Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources under former Gov. George Allen and served under President George H.W. Bush as associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department.
James looked back at her time at OPM and highlighted what she sees as major challenges for the next director during a Jan. 12 interview with Federal Times. Following are edited excerpts:
James: At the top of the list would have to be one of the largest mergers and acquisitions in the history of our country, DHS. Working with Secretary [Tom] Ridge to accomplish that has been one of the highlights of my professional career, and working with our stakeholders and our unions. It was hard work, it was difficult work, it was complex work, and it’s rewarding work.
We are cautiously optimistic about where we are in the process with DoD. Given where we are in the history of our nation and the fact that we are a nation at war right now, to play even a small part in helping Secretary Rumsfeld create a more agile work force that can be more responsive to mission is just rewarding work.
The expanding role that OPM is playing in the national security arena with the clearances. Some people just see the tip of the iceberg with DSS, but that’s been in the works for 18 months to two years.
When I think about improving the lives of our federal employees by looking at additional benefits, looking at flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts, working with Congress on new vision and dental [benefits], all of that is extremely rewarding.
All of those things are important, all of them are rewarding, but I think one of the most important pieces is a piece that often gets overlooked, and that is the responsibility for the emergency preparedness of federal workers and specifically for the people here at OPM since 9/11. That has been something that was added to our portfolio, and, while all of those things are important, health and safety of course always comes first.
James: There was a quote from my confirmation hearing, a quote from Adlai Stevenson, that talked about the fact that every day brings about changes, large and small, and change is inevitable. But to change for the better is a full-time job. I had no idea the small and the large changes that were about to take place. Many people who talked to me in the last few days have said there’s been more change in the American civil service in the last three years than in the three decades that went before, and I believe that to be true. I was privileged to head this agency at that moment in time.
James: A lot of people keep overlooking that this is the first president we’ve had who’s had an MBA (master’s of business administration). He is interested in management, and he’s interested in keeping score. He wants results. When you have a president who deeply cares about management — not process, results — it should come as no surprise that the agencies are far more well-managed now than they ever have been, and we are required to produce results. As an agency head, I can also tell you it’s real. When you sit down with the president, he wants to know about results and what you’re doing. Not how many meetings you’ve had, how many brochures you’ve produced, how many conferences you’ve had, not what the process is, but results.
James: Absolutely. There was a huge gap between what we should be doing and what we were doing. Based on what we were doing, I can understand why a lot of people thought it was an irrelevant, outdated, outmoded organization that didn’t need to exist, and I would have agreed.
One of the core principles and values and missions of this organization was to provide for the American people a work force, setting the policy so that we could have the right people in the right jobs at the right time.
Our civil service is held in high esteem all over the world. There are leaders in the world who are dealing with corruption, dealing with patronage, dealing with all kinds of issues, and look to the American civil service and what makes us unique and different and the envy of the world. What makes us different are the merit system principles, and it’s OPM’s job to make sure that the agencies adhere to that.
It is noble work, it’s good work, it’s important work that the Office of Personnel Management does, and I think many in Congress in the last few years have come to understand that, particularly when we recognize that we need to transform the American civil service. That — while the principles are timeless — the systems are outdated, antiquated, outmoded and in dire need of reform. And I believe the principles are timeless enough that the reform can be done within the context and the confines of those principles. That’s the role that OPM plays, being an advocate for the agencies, [ensuring] that they have the flexibilities they need to get the job done, but at the same time making sure the core values and principles of the American civil service stay intact.
James: One of the fun things about being director of OPM . . . is that it’s a target-rich environment. On the first day of the job, there’s a hundred different things they could focus on right away. There are the obvious things, of course: Making sure that the Department of Homeland Security regs get implemented and being as helpful as we can to the new secretary to get that done. Making sure that we continue to work with our teammates at DoD to get their regulations as far along [as Homeland Security’s]. And as I’ve often said, to make sure that — for the agencies that are not a part of the reform — we leave no agency behind in the reform effort, to take the reforms governmentwide. But at the moment we’re doing that, we also have a responsibility to evaluate and analyze the changes that we’re doing to make sure that they are working in the ways that we believe that they will be.
Along with that, I think a lot of attention has got to be paid to DSS and absorbing those 1,800 employees into OPM and making sure that while we do that we keep the level of service up to the OPM standard. We do a pretty good job on national security background checks and we want to make sure that, in the interest of national security, we continue to do that.
James: That the American civil service is strong, the American people have an excellent work force working on their behalf, that we have not diminished in any way the merit system principles, that managers in our agencies felt as though they had an advocate for change. And that’s a fine line to walk.