Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Whither (or Wither) OPM?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Whither (or Wither) OPM?

Article excerpt

The recent departure of Jim King as the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) marks the closure of a dramatic period in the short history of the agency. During King's tenure, over half of the agency's personnel were sacked and much of the agency's mission was given to the human resource departments of individual federal agencies. King stands out among his peers because of his fierce loyalty to the political dimension of government reform. He and his staff studiously avoided many in the public administration community, but they were sanguine about the wave of change afoot in the field of human resource management (HRM). They successfully used this impetus for change as a means of accomplishing the Clinton administration's political goals for government reform.


Jim King took over as the director of the Office of Personnel Management on April 7, 1993. Shortly after taking the helm of the agency, he held a town meeting for all of the agency's employees. Standing alone on the stage of DAR Constitutional Hall in front of a large red banner which read: "OPM, the Model Agency!" he promised to make the Office of Personnel Management the model agency for the federal government. While the rank and file members of the agency weren't really sure what King meant by a "model agency," they generally were supportive of leadership that would strengthen and clarify the agency's role in the governance process. The agency's employees hoped that King would continue the initiatives of his two predecessors, Constance Newman and Constance Horner, in shaping an active and meaningful role for the agency. Despite the best efforts of Horner and Newman, the Office of Personnel Management, since its inception in 1978, has had difficulty fulfilling a dual mission that required the agency both to regulate and to assist federal agencies in the successful management of human resources. This contradictory dual mission, along with a serious effort during the first Reagan Administration to disable the agency made it difficult for the Office of Personnel Management to have the impact on the federal human resource community that many had hoped it would.(1)

One of the lasting effects, however, was a culture where bureaucratic politics often overshadowed the accomplishment of the agency's mission. As Kets de Vries and Miller (1989) suggest, in a politicized culture, leaders and managers below the top level of the organization expend a great deal of energy on political tactics, and limited energy is directed toward teamwork and organizational vision.

This lack of internal cohesion made it possible for Jim King to effectively reshape the direction of the Office of Personnel Management. King brought to the agency something that most within the public administration community had not anticipated: leadership backed by strong political support and a tightly focused unyielding agenda. King came to the Office of Personnel Management as the reforms pushed by the National Performance Review were gaining momentum. In the book Inside the Reinvention Machine, Donald Kettl points out that the National Performance Review played an "outside game focused on downsizing the federal government focused on transforming the government's culture" (Kettl and Dilulio, 1995, 12). King's efforts at the Office of Personnel Management truly mirrored this larger strategy suggested by the National Performance Review.

From the outset, King has had a clear vision of the role of the Office of Personnel Management. The vision consists of two parts. First, the agency would lead the reinvention of government, both in rhetoric and by example. He conceived of the leadership role in terms of a political mandate rather than a managerial process. Second, the agency would be converted from a central management agency, with an emphasis on direction and regulation, to a commercial-style entrepreneurial agency that would sell its services to potential customers in the rest of the executive branch. …

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