Conversions of Employees from Political to Career Positions May 2005-May 2009
GAO-10-688: Published: Jun 28, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2010.
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Political appointees in the federal government sometimes seek appointments to career competitive and other positions which, unlike political appointments, do not terminate at the end of an administration. Federal agencies must use appropriate authorities and follow proper procedures in making these conversions. GAO was asked to determine for departments and selected agencies (1) the number and characteristics of all political to career conversions occurring during the period from May 1, 2005, through May 30, 2009, and (2) whether appropriate authorities were used and proper procedures were followed in making these conversions at the GS-12 level and above.
Twenty-six of the 42 departments and agencies selected for review reported converting 139 individuals from political to career positions from May 1, 2005, through May 30, 2009. The other 16 departments and agencies reported making no conversions during this period. Five agencies accounted for 79, or 57 percent, of the 139 reported conversions: the Departments of Justice (32), Homeland Security (17), Defense (13), Energy (9), and Commerce (8). Agencies appeared to have used appropriate authorities and followed proper procedures in making the majority (92) of the 117 conversions reported at the GS-12 level or higher. However, for seven of these conversions documentation indicates that agencies may not have adhered to merit system principles, followed proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices or other improprieties. Some of the improper procedures included pre-selecting particular individuals for career positions and selecting former political appointees who appeared to have limited qualifications and/or experience relevant to the career positions. Of the seven conversions, five will be reviewed by OPM; one involves an issue most appropriately reviewed by the agency's ethics officer, and one does not warrant further action as both the official solely responsible for the conversion and the convertee are no longer with the agency. For 18 conversions there was insufficient information to make a determination as to whether appropriate authorities and proper procedures were followed. In some cases this was because the document retention period had passed by the time of our review and agencies no longer maintained the files. In other cases, agencies did not provide enough documentation for us to fully assess the process they used to make the conversion. Political appointees can bring valuable skills and experience to the federal workforce, and the merit-based conversion of political appointees to career positions can be a useful means to achieving a highly qualified workforce. OPM's newly implemented pre-appointment review of these conversions could help better ensure they are done appropriately. GAO recommends that OPM review five of the seven conversions GAO identified where it appears that certain agencies did not adhere to merit system principles, did not follow proper procedures, or may have engaged in prohibited personnel practices, and determine whether additional actions are needed. OPM agreed with this recommendation. Regarding the remaining two conversions that raised questions, one is currently being reviewed by the Ethics Officer for the agency that made the conversion and the other does not warrant further action in our view as the official solely responsible for the conversion and the convertee are both no longer with the agency.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: OPM, in a December 16, 2010, letter to GAO, indicated that it has reviewed each of the 5 cases we forwarded to them to determine whether the agencies involved followed appropriate authorities and procedures. In 2 cases, OPM found that two Schedule C political appointees were converted improperly to career competitive service positions and has referred both cases to the US Office of Special Counsel for investigation of possible prohibited personnel practices. In another case, OPM found flaws in the way Treasury assessed candidates for the position but found nothing to suggest that the agency manipulated the hiring process to benefit the appointee or that partisan politics played a role in the appointment. OPM has advised Treasury to review its assessment practices and make needed improvements. In another case, OPM found that Veterans' Affairs (VA) used the wrong veterans' appointing authority, but again found no evidence that the agency manipulated the hiring process to benefit the appointee or that partisan politics played a role in the appointment. VA subsequently properly appointed the individual to a different competitive service position. In the final case, OPM found that the appointment adhered to merit system principles and was free of political influence. OPM provided GAO copies of the decision letters sent to the respective agencies.
Recommendation: To help ensure that federal agencies are adhering to merit system principles and following proper procedures in making conversions of political to career positions, the Director, OPM should review five conversions we identified where it appears that certain agencies did not adhere to merit system principles, did not follow proper procedures, or engaged in other improprieties in making these conversions and determine whether additional actions are needed.
Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management