Who is Kiran Ahuja, US President Joe Biden’s choice for OPM?


Kiran Ahuja previously served as executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and OPM chief of staff. Credit: Paul Chang, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If confirmed, Kiran Ahuja will become the first Indian-American to head the Office of Personnel Management in the United States. Josh Lowe gives an account of his career so far and what we can learn from his recent appearance before a Senate committee

Good job interviews are usually high-profile, but few range from investigating your IT system upgrade plans to whether you think you live in a racist country.

Again, a US Senate confirmation hearing is not a normal job interview. A session last month, held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, put Kiran Ahuja, the appointment of US President Joe Biden as director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), to the test.

So who is the 49-year-old lawyer assigned by Biden to oversee the HR of his administration and millions of federal employees? And what questions does she face as she moves through the approval process?

His journey so far

If confirmed, Ahuja’s appointment to this leadership position would be historic. Born in India – but residing in the United States since the age of two – she would be the first Indian-American to lead the OPM.

During her confirmation of charges hearing, she paid tribute to her husband and parents. Her father was a psychiatrist, who served in a series of southern rural hospitals and then ran a medical clinic for underserved communities in Savannah, Georgia.

Ahuja has also spent his career in the public service. Previous roles include executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and chief of staff at OPM. Her initial training was in law and she started her career working for the Ministry of Justice. Her current role is as Executive Director of Philanthropy Northwest, a network that facilitates collaboration between philanthropic organizations.

Identity politics

During her hearing, Ahuja was faced with a series of forceful questions from Republican senators on identity politics. Having already spoken out against the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion in some cases, Ahuja was asked if she would obey the law as a director. She replied that we would.

Senator James Lankford asked Ahuja how she would handle the question of whether the employee health insurance program administered by the OPM should include puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgeries for children. Ahuja said she “would be committed to understanding the problem better, to getting a feel for what is going on within the agency.”

And in perhaps the most combative exchange of the hearing, Senator Josh Hawley emphasized her take on racial issues, including whether she thought the United States was a “nation. systematically racist ”and its position on diversity training and the so-called“ critical race theory ”. .

On the first question, Ahuja said she would seek to ensure equal opportunities. And while distancing herself from the specific training program that Hawley mentioned, she cautiously defended diversity training in general. She said such programs could “encourage understanding” and create an “inclusive workforce” – two issues of concern to potential young government employees.

OPM in the line of fire

Ahuja was also questioned about a cyberattack against the OPM in 2015, when she was chief of staff. The data stolen during the incident – which, according to Wired, were branded by hackers linked to the Chinese government – included millions of forms relating to security background checks and fingerprint registrations.

Ahuja was asked about the leaks and how she would improve cybersecurity. She is committed to working with the committee on efforts to train and retain cybersecurity professionals in the federal government. This included support for a bill, backed by committee chair Gary Peters, that would create a “rotation program” to allow cybersecurity professionals to work in multiple agencies.

Ahuja said “IT modernization” would be a “high priority” for her. Asked about improving retirement services for federal workers, Ahuja mentioned a recent boost to the IT Modernization Fund, which she says will be a factor in helping it move forward where its predecessors have had a hard time. wrong.

Merit-based principles

During the Trump years, the OPM frequently found itself at the heart of debates over the independence and integrity of the public service. Notably, the Trump administration proposed – and ultimately abandoned – plans to merge the OPM with the General Services Administration (GSA) and attempted to remove the job protection rights of public servants working on political issues. His administration argued that reforms were necessary to eliminate underperforming civil servants, but many feared the plans would allow elected leaders to pressure or fire political staff seen as insufficiently committed to their agenda.

During the Ahuja hearing, Republican Senator and Classification Committee member Rob Portman cited statistics from last year’s Workforce Survey, released by OPM, which suggest federal employees are concerned with merit-based principles and performance. Similar concerns were also raised in this year’s survey: for example, only 42% of respondents agreed with the statement: “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a bad situation. student who cannot or does not want to improve. “

“Often times poor performance emerges due to a lack of employee engagement, or a mismatch of skills and talents for this role, or there just aren’t really clear metrics around it. performance review, ”Ahuja said.

She underlined the importance of the OPM “support of the agencies around the orientations of performance management … [and] help managers understand these processes.

Ahuja’s role still hinges on a final confirmation vote in the Senate, where any of these issues could provide significant points of contention. All Republican senators voted against her in the committee vote, citing her take on race and abortion, but she won 7-5 thanks to the Democratic majority.

During her hearing, Ahuja said, “I believe that people are and should be at the center of all political decisions, and… I would advance this guiding principle while working in service of the American public.” It remains to be seen whether the Senate, in a time of division, accepts that Ahuja can be the unifier the American civil service needs.


Kevin E. Boling