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OPM Just Made It Harder to Drain the Swamp

Alex Nowrasteh

President Donald Trump took office with a promise to drain the
swamp, but the federal agency that manages the government’s
two million civilian employees is making it harder to do that.
Under a new policy, the Office of Personnel Management recently
stopped reporting data on employees terminated for wrongdoing or
poor performance.

This information is critical because the data inform the public
about incompetent and, in some cases, corrupt government employees.
Without it, systematic government wrongdoing and poor performance
may go unnoticed and unreformed.

The data provide information on separations, which,
in bureaucratic language, is when a federal employee stops working
for the government. OPM assigns a cause to each separation,
choosing from a list of 12 different categories—such as death
or a transfer­—and releases these details annually, along
with information on employees’ age, rank, pay, and other
characteristics.

No administration can
drain the swamp if it doesn’t know where to look.

That’s where the latest policy change comes into effect. A
termination for discipline or poor performance is coded as
“SI, Termination or Removal (Discipline/Performance).”
But that information was not included in OPM’s 2016
separations data. Every other separations category, in alphabetical
order from “SA, Transfer Out” to “SL, Other
Separation,” was retained in the 2016 dataset.

While OPM publishes guides with the separations datasets that
explain the contents of the newly released information, the guide
for the 2016 separations data, unlike every previous year’s
guide, makes no mention of terminations for discipline or
performance.

When I contacted OPM in July, a public affairs official
explained this hole in the agency’s otherwise orderly set of
separations data as necessary to “protect information at the
individual record level” based on a 2007 memo that laid out federal guidelines for
protecting the personally identifiable information of
Americans.

That explanation defies logic. These datasets have never
included the names of the terminated individuals. If protecting the
personally identifiable information of federal employees was the
real reason for not reporting terminations for discipline or
performance, then why is the gender, location, agency and
occupation, rank, salary, and other information about these
employees available for every termination prior to 2016 (and for
every other separation in that year)?

Publishing this information about terminated federal employees
does not violate anyone’s privacy. But withholding it keeps
taxpayers in the dark about the extent of personnel problem in the
agencies they fund. For example, OPM’s data allows us to know
about federal employees fired for misconduct, such as Border Patrol agents fired after
convictions for bribery and drug charges
. If these employees
had lost their jobs in 2016, the current OPM policy would not list
their terminations under the discipline and performance category,
and we’d have no idea how widespread such firings are.

No administration can drain the swamp if it doesn’t know
where to look. OPM once provided valuable information on
discipline, performance, and corruption problems in federal
agencies. As it is, it’s notoriously difficult to fire
federal employees. But neglecting to report information on federal
employees who are fired for serious reasons makes it impossible to
reform the federal bureaucracy.

Alex
Nowrasteh
is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato
Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.