Pon Faces Bump in the Road to Confirmation as OPM Director

Former SHRM CHRO asked about 2013 rule on health care for Congress members

By Roy Maurer Oct 19, 2017
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Jeff T.H. Pon, SHRM-SCP

President Donald Trump's choice to become the new director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) ran into a potential snag early in his confirmation hearing, when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he would hold up the nomination if the agency did not hand over requested documents relating to a 2013 ruling.

Johnson said that OPM "came up with a scheme" when it allowed the federal government to continue to make employer contributions to the health insurance plans of members of Congress and their staff in violation of Congress' intent.

In 2014, Johnson sued to overturn the ruling. He has been requesting documentation detailing how OPM came up with that decision ever since.

"I've been trying to get this information for four years, and I'm running out of patience," he said. He noted that he doesn't object to employer contributions to health insurance, but that the rule provided "special treatment" to members of Congress.

OPM Director nominee Jeff T.H. Pon, SHRM-SCP, former chief HR and strategy officer for the Society for Human Resource Management, replied that he will look into the matter.

Responding to other senators' questions, Pon told the Senate committee overseeing his confirmation that he plans to make headway on an enormous backlog of security clearance screens, ensure that hiring managers are recruiting from diverse talent pools and move the government's remaining paper-based HR records systems into the digital age. 

"We have not taken a hard look at our civil service laws in decades, we are still relying on paper processes, and in too many areas the federal government is not a workplace that is keeping up with the demands of the next generation of public servants or serving our current federal employees," he said.

OPM provides HR support to federal agencies and oversees all workforce policy—from hiring and performance management to pay, leave and benefits. 
Pon's nomination will first have to be approved by the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee before being voted on by the full Senate.

If confirmed, Pon would likely be seen as instrumental to keeping the president's campaign pledge to "drain the swamp" of government bureaucracy. Trump signed an executive order March 13 calling for a governmentwide review to determine executive branch agencies and programs that can be eliminated or modified for cost savings.

Information Security

Appearing before the committee Oct. 18, Pon answered questions about OPM's 2015 data breach that resulted in the loss of more than 20 million employee records, the large backlog of security clearance screens, the government's outdated records systems and hiring a diverse workforce.    

OPM is still feeling the effects of the devastating 2015 hack. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., asked Pon how he plans to shore up data security.

"Information security is something we all need to work on daily," Pon replied. "It's important that we have the necessary personnel to do that. In 2015, OPM had a target to hire 6,500 cybersecurity professionals. It exceeded the original goal and is at over 8,000 today. My priority will be to look at any recommendations that are left [from a Government Accountability Office report issued in August] and take action on them." 

Pon also told the committee that he would embark on transforming the federal government's HR recordkeeping from a mix of paper and electronic systems to a digital records system from recruitment through retirement.

Heitkamp expressed concerned with the Trump administration's talk of across-the-board job cuts or "managing to attrition" and said she expects that Pon will evaluate workforce needs and be a "fierce advocate of appropriate staffing."

Security Clearances

The agency is dealing with a backlog of as many as 700,000 applicants for security clearances through its year-old National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), leading the Department of Defense to pressure it to be allowed to begin processing its own clearances again. Pon told the committee that his staff will evaluate the NBIB and the Defense Department's request.

"It seems as though [the NBIB] is stabilizing," he said, adding that he realizes there is an urgency to decrease the backlog. He also said that while electronic background checks are important, face-to-face interviews with employers, friends and family should not be minimized.

Diversity and Inclusion

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., questioned Pon about his plans to follow President Barack Obama's Executive Order 13583 on hiring for diversity, specifically among the senior executive service.

Pon responded that he will make sure that diversity and inclusion programs are supported, especially at the sourcing stage, so "managers don't have the excuse of saying that there aren't enough qualified diverse candidates."

A diverse workforce starts with diverse talent pools, he said. "Every manager should be going into schools and places where you can source qualified, diverse candidates and recruiting, instead of relying on who applies through USAJobs."

Harris also asked for Pon's thoughts on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' Oct. 4 memo rejecting the Obama administration's interpretation that transgender workers are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law protects workers on the basis of sex, among other protections such as race, national origin and religion.

OPM has historically provided training and resources to agencies on how to respond to discrimination, and Pon said he will continue to support that training, including relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.

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