Bureaucracy Bulletin: The Personnel Office Downsizes Itself

Early this year, in his State of the Union address, President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over." Thanks to his downsizing, the federal work force has been reduced by more than 10 percent to the smallest it has been in more than 30 years. Billions of dollars are being saved.

As director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), I've been at ringside. Here is how OPM itself has downsized by 44 percent so far: by attrition, a hiring freeze, privatization, cash incentives for employees to retire or resign, and - as a last resort - through reductions in force.

Our office has three major roles. First, we oversee the hiring, promotion, training, and retirement of the far-flung federal work force. Second, we work to protect the merit system, which means that everyone who applies for a job is treated fairly, extending to promotions, pay, benefits, and other workplace issues. Third, we administer health, life insurance, and retirement programs.

Could some of our work be as well performed outside government? The answer was yes.

We helped about 700 members of our investigations unit start a new, employee-owned private company (US Investigations Services Inc.) that will carry out background investigations for both federal agencies and the private sector. An independent consulting firm estimated that this privatization would save the taxpayers a minimum of $25 million in five years.

We also helped about 130 members of our training staff negotiate a contract whereby they went to work, at comparable pay and benefits, for the nongovernmental USDA (US Department of Agriculture) Graduate School and at the Brookings Institution.

There is a right way and a wrong way to downsize. The right way is with concern and compassion for every employee. That is why we have operated an aggressive career-transition program that has had a 96 percent success rate in helping departing workers find new jobs or make other career choices.

The president's reinvention of government has also stressed the elimination of unnecessary regulation and red tape. OPM has responded by eliminating the 10,000-page Federal Personnel Manual (saving an estimated $30 million) and the overly complicated Form 171 job application. Today, in most cases, job-seekers can simply submit a resume or even apply by phone. Comprehensive federal job listings are available on OPM's new USA JOBS Web site at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov.

OPM has been a leader in using technology to move government toward our goal of a "paperless personnel office." For example, job applications that once took many hours for personnel to score now are scanned electronically in seconds.

In response to the president's call for a family-friendly workplace, we have supported child-care, telecommuting, flextime, leave-sharing, and leave banks. In one case, when an employee was seriously ill, her fellow workers donated six months of leave to her. Another employee telecommuted from home while he recovered from an auto accident. These programs are intended to help employees balance the pressures of work and family.

During the 1980s, federal union-management relations reached an all-time low. As a result, President Clinton appointed the National Partnership Council, which I chair. The council has supported the creation of hundreds of new workplace partnership councils all across government. The results have been dramatic in new workplace cooperation and money saved.

For example, we recently presented an award to the US Mint in Philadelphia, where employees have saved a million dollars a year by developing a way to prolong the life of the dies used to produce pennies. Another award went to the Department of Education, which increased overdue student loan collections from $174 million to $862 million in three years. These success stories don't attract as much attention as scandals or disasters, but they are very real and they are reshaping the way our government does business.

In the past three years, we have begun to glimpse the government of the future. It will be smaller, flatter, more automated, more family-friendly, more customer-oriented, and more market-driven. It will meet the president's goal of a government that works better and costs less.

*James B. King is director of the US Office of Personnel Management.

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