President Biden’s pick to lead the federal government’s embattled human resources agency told senators Thursday that she would keep federal employees’ needs at the forefront of all of her decision-making if confirmed to become director of the Office of Personnel Management.
“I believe that people are and should be at the center of all policy decisions, and if I were fortunate enough to be confirmed, I would carry forward this guiding principle while working in service to the American public,” said OPM director nominee Kiran Ahuja. “I pledge to protect our merit systems principles, which are a bedrock of our civil service. It would be my mission to serve and support federal employees, and to restore, rebuild and retool the federal workforce.”
Ahuja, who most recently was CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, a network of nonprofit organizations in the Pacific Northwest, served as OPM’s chief of staff from 2015 until 2017 and would be the first South Asian to lead the federal government’s HR shop. During her confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Ahuja promised stability for the agency, which has seen two directors depart after a matter of months along with a slew of acting leaders during the Trump administration.
“In the case of OPM, I think a lot of the challenges have been not having stable leadership at the top,” she said. “I commit to being there as long as I have the support of all of you and of President Biden, because I think it’s needed.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, asked how Ahuja would tackle the longstanding complaints by many federal workers, as documented in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, that it is too difficult to deal with poor performers and that promotions are not granted on merit.
“Thirty-nine percent of federal workers believe promotions are based on merit, which means that the rest do not,” Portman said. “That should be very concerning. And only 34% believe poor performance is adequately addressed by management. How will you improve the hiring process at the federal level so that it maximizes merit and addresses poor performance?”
In a break from the previous administration, which sought to shorten the federal firing process, Ahuja said she would work with agencies to better support and train managers to use the tools already available at their disposal.
“What I’ve seen in most cases in executive roles is that oftentimes poor performance shows up because of a lack of employee engagement or a mismatch of skills and talents for that position, or there just isn’t real clear metrics for performance evaluations,” she said. “Relating to focusing on poor performers, I think it’s key to think about and to focus on what OPM can do on supporting agencies with performance management guidance, supporting managers and their understanding of those processes . . . Oftentimes, managers, they’re focused on their work, not as much on the day-to-day of supervision, and that’s equally important.”
Ahuja fielded multiple questions about telework, as Portman asked how quickly feds can get back into physical offices, while Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked whether the move to maximum telework due to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown opportunities where agencies can move certain positions to be permanently performed remotely.
“Are there jobs that you think we’ve discovered in the past year that could be permanently remote work, and what I’m focused on are areas of spouses that work for people in the U.S. military on active duty,” Lankford said. “Military spouses have a very difficult time getting jobs in different places. If they were allowed to work remotely they could be assigned with their spouse anywhere in the world and still have opportunities to work for one of our agencies and it would open up a lot of opportunities for them.”
Ahuja said that she is focused on balancing the needs of public in-person access to federal services along with protecting the safety of federal employees who would be required to interact with the public, and that she is very interested in finding more opportunities for full-time telework throughout the government. She noted that telework could provide agencies with savings both in terms of locality pay and their physical office footprint.
“I’m very much in support of opportunities that telework and remote work could provide, and if confirmed that would be something I’d definitely be leaning into,” she said. “We’re completely rethinking work at this moment, not just in the federal government but all across the country. I think not only does it give opportunities to individuals not necessarily based in an urban centers but a way to actually provide service and give our thanks especially to military spouses when they are located in remote locations.”
One pointed line of questioning came from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who lauded the Trump administration’s controversial decision to halt allegedly “divisive” diversity and inclusion training at federal agencies and by federal contractors. Hawley, who pushed to invalidate the results of the 2020 presidential election amid an attack at the U.S. Capitol, blasted training as an example of “left wing indoctrination,” although a recent survey of federal workers found that they largely supported the training and found Trump’s sidelining of the courses as “counterproductive.”
“OPM is effectively the federal government’s HR department, and it impacts millions of civil servants and I want to make sure that in this job that we are committed to unifying Americans, not dividing them, certainly along the lines of race,” Hawley said. “I think it’s vital that we commit to not trying to divide Americans along the lines of race, so my question to you is: will you commit to uphold the merit based employment system and the core values that underpin it, and not introduce considerations of political ideology, racial ideology, or anything else other than the merit based employment system and the laws that define what those considerations and qualifications should be?”
“I understand the role of this position and take it seriously, and I’m dedicated to upholding merit systems principles,” Ahuja said. “I also understand the value that no one should be discriminated [against] based on race; I was a former civil rights lawyer and I take that very seriously. I think we all uphold what Martin Luther King Jr. said that we should be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, and that’s the approach that I’ve taken.”