OPM’s Angela Bailey: Leader of the Pack

At 17 years old, Angela Bailey joked about wanting to be a mafia boss. Something about the terrifying heads of the most dangerous and powerful families in the U.S. amazed her. “They were just so cool,” she said. But she knew that wouldn’t work out.

Instead, because it was crime and criminals that fascinated her, she decided to be a criminal prosecuting attorney. But she couldn’t afford to be one. After graduating from high school, Bailey knew she’d have to work while earning her degree, and she didn’t know where to start.

Fresh out of Waynesboro Area Senior High School in June 1981, Bailey went to the nearest unemployment office in search of work. She was asked to take a career aptitude test and told she would hear back, if matched, in a few weeks. Three weeks later she received a 3-by-5-inch index card congratulating on her placement.

“I waltzed down to the unemployment office, handed my card to the secretary and naively announced, ‘I’m here to work,’” she said. “The secretary took my card and said, ‘No sweetheart, you’ve got a job at the Social Security office, and it’s down the street.’”

It wasn’t what Bailey was expecting, but she wasn’t about to negotiate.

“The alternative was to quit, and loans were not something that were part of the equation back then. I told myself I was going to earn my degree, and I knew this is how I had to do it.”

Bailey earned the degree — a bachelor’s in leadership from Nebraska’s Bellevue University — but she didn’t leave the government, and hasn’t for 31 years.

“I started really enjoying what I was doing,” she said. “I had my eye on being a labor relations officer, and thought, and still do think, it’s in many ways the same thing as being a criminal prosecuting attorney.”

Bailey transitioned from Social Security to the Department of Defense and served as a budget analyst and later labor relations officer for more than 20 years. She was able to participate in arbitrations, plead labor cases to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, conduct negotiations with unions, handle grievances with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and dip her toes into human resource policy.

From there she became director of human resources for the Defense Contract Management Agency and earned a master’s degree in leadership from Bellevue.

“I love the study of people and leadership,” Bailey said. “Even as we’re moving in a rapid speed toward a more technology-based world, I still believe nothing gets done without people. The heart of HR is still, and always will be, people and finding ways to lead, motivate, train, pay, reward, hire and retain them. Doing that for 1.8 million federal employees is a job unlike any other.”

Since assuming her role as associate director for employee services for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in July 2011, Bailey’s goal has been to lead and strive for change.

“Within the Office of Personnel Management, and even in the federal government as a whole quite frankly, we’re very compliance rule-bound,” she said. “I keep up with literature in the industry, am involved with blogs and forums, and try to expose my staff to trends to answer the question that’s always in the back of my mind: What will work look like in 2020 and beyond?”

Bailey and her team of 320 brainstorm answers to this question and how to provide new phased retirement opportunities. Under this newly enacted law, an agency will be able to offer employees who are retirement-eligible the choice of switching to part-time work. These employees will draw a partial salary and a partial annuity, prorated according to the time worked. Further, the law’s language suggests that phased retirees will spend a fifth of their working time mentoring younger employees, because according to Bailey, there are more than twice as many federal employees in their 50s than there are under age 30, which is almost the opposite of the age distribution in the private sector.

“We are emphasizing mentoring programs at all levels of the workforce, competency assessments in filling mission-critical positions, and succession planning, as well as innovation practices that bring experienced workers in with newer talent to tackle complex problems in new ways,” said OPM Director John Berry.

Some think this might be too little, too late.

“I have to be honest with you,” said Bill Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a national union representing blue and white collar government workers. “We haven’t done as good of a job as we could have or should have with respect to transferring knowledge as our older workers transition out of the workforce.”

Dougan said the government has always sought to be the employer of choice, but if the public looks at what’s going on with all the budget uncertainties and lack of succession planning, it’s difficult for the government to paint itself that way.

“We need to find out what the public, prospective employees, expect from the government and revamp the image,” he said. “Otherwise we’re just going to be a political football that gets thrown back and forth and subject to whims of politics and the party that is in power at the time.”

While Bailey agrees that it’s a difficult time to be in government, she takes pride in solving challenges. In addition to being OPM’s associate director for employee services, she is her agency’s chief human capital officer and serves on the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council. Her mission there has been to tackle problems before they arise.

The frenzy over the current sequestration — an across-the-board cut set to go into effect in January — has government officials worried about the significant disruption that may result from these cuts. This spring Bailey created a workforce restructuring think tank in coordination with the CHCO Council to prepare each agency for any changes it might have to undergo.

“Angie approached council members and said, ‘I know you’re all going to look at OPM if this ever comes to fruition and you have to reduce your workforce. What do you think you might need from us? What tools can we provide to you?” said Kathryn Medina, executive director of the CHCO Council.

From the OPM side, Bailey was aware of the number of Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay requests and inquiries coming into her agency. She also understood the budget climate and the uncertainty that lies ahead. Bailey had experience dealing with reduction in workforce and what it takes to plan and execute workforce restructuring. She knew there wasn’t any time to waste.

“Instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, she asked for CHCOs and deputies with expertise to contribute to the think tank, and we purposely named it a think tank to discern this group from our traditional working group structure, which has a formalized project management focus,” Medina said. “Angie and her team have continued to lead this workforce restructuring think tank with great success, even working with the Partnership for Public Service on several workshops aimed at preparing for three key areas: the workforce you need, the workforce that will go and the workforce that remains.”

Since 2003, when the council was created under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Medina has worked with Bailey’s team to strengthen the partnership between OPM and the council.

The act required the heads of 26 executive departments and agencies to appoint or designate CHCOs. Each CHCO serves as his or her agency’s chief policy adviser on all human resources management issues and is charged with selecting, developing, training and managing a high-quality, productive workforce. Each CHCO partners with his or her deputy CHCO member and the council also includes Berry, who serves as chairman, and the deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget, who acts as vice chairman.

The council’s mission is to advise and coordinate the activities of members’ agencies on issues such as the modernization of human resources systems, improved quality of human resources information and legislation affecting human resources operations and organizations. On the other hand, OPM’s mission is to recruit, retain and honor a world-class workforce to serve the American people.

“I’ll admit, when the council was young, we struggled a bit to find the balance between the CHCOs and OPM,” Medina said. “But recently, in large part due to the leadership of Director Berry and Angie, we’ve been able to easily delegate who takes the lead on certain initiatives, who takes the lead on implementation and who has more influence on certain policies.”

Berry accredits this to Bailey’s leadership skills.

“Angie Bailey is an excellent manager and a great team leader,” he said. “Her energy and creativity is amongst the top 1 percent of government leaders.”

Bailey’s desire to bring about change isn’t confined to her work with the council. Her two most recent projects within OPM have been reducing time to hire and increasing applicant satisfaction.

“OPM is the mother ship of personnel,” she said. “All agencies look to us to be the subject matter experts, the policy makers, and the one-stop shop of where they can go to get expert advice when it comes to human resource policy.”

Bailey has worked with her team and agencies across the government to reduce time to hire to 80 days. From the time the manager has an opening, to the point where the seat is filled, hiring managers have 80 days to fill the seat and should do this in 14 steps Bailey has crafted to smooth the process.

“Too often in the government practices have been handed down and down,” she said. “After a while nobody really knows why they’re doing something, it’s just always how they’ve done it. We’re changing that.”

Bailey also has adopted an HR dashboard that allows her to measure, monitor and publicly display each agency’s hiring and development reform progress on performance.gov. The website also publishes findings from employee viewpoint surveys, which examine competency gaps, employee satisfaction, engagement and retention.

“It’s not intended to embarrass the agencies,” she said. “But peer pressure works really well.”

Another one of OPM’s most recent projects has been to increase applicant satisfaction for the 11 million Americans seeking employment opportunities with the federal government.

Two years ago Bailey’s team worked with President Obama to eliminate the requirement for job candidates to write essays known as KSAs, which are intended to evaluate their knowledge, skills and abilities. The essays had to be submitted for each position sought, and applicants expressed their frustration at having to submit more than a resume and cover letter.

“When we implemented this, many agencies woofed and snorted,” Bailey said. “But we were doing the right thing. It made no sense to ask thousands of people to answer all of these essays when only a few were being interviewed and even fewer hired.”

While Bailey has streamlined the process, she said it’s hardly simple.

“When you’re taking 24 major cabinet/department-level agencies and trying to do something like this, it’s like taking an aircraft carrier in the middle of downtown D.C. and trying to maneuver it,” she said.

Still, she’s done it.

“Success can certainly be measured in many different ways,” she said. “When I retire I hope my success is measured by the legacy I leave behind — leading human resources management in the federal government during the 21st century.”