Charged for Change

OPM Director John Berry taps positive energy to push through telework, hiring and pay reforms.

One morning in January, I found myself sitting on a doctor's examining table listening intently to a discussion about a Body Mass Index score. The test results, however, weren't mine. Instead, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry was the one joking about being held accountable for his score, which, he said, was a little higher than he'd expected. In the interests of promoting employee wellness and OPM's new health clinic, Berry had just undergone a screening in front of dozens of his staffers, and was discussing the results with reporters.

The gesture was characteristic of the boldness he brings to advocating for the federal workforce. Within weeks after arriving at OPM's Foggy Bottom headquarters in April 2009, Berry announced a new governmentwide telework policy; later he dared Cabinet secretaries to show up at a Washington-area food bank in Hawaiian shirts to promote a federal food drive, and he delivered a series of impassioned speeches about the importance of federal service. "It's as though John Berry had been shot out of a cannon," says Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. He has brought visibility to an agency so obscure to the general public that when OPM, which administers a model benefits plan, became a key focus in the debate over health care reform, The New York Times reassured readers that it was "well-established."

That exposure serves a larger goal. Berry hopes to preside over some of the most significant changes to federal personnel policy in 30 years. His public mandate from President Obama is to "make government cool again." But to transform the federal government's battered image and make it an employer of choice, Berry has to do more than make it sound fun. He has to make sure it works, even the unsexy parts.

Observers call Berry a change agent-the quintessential Energizer bunny. He's the rare presidential appointee who thought taking over an agency would be fun, and then says it's been "more fun than I expected."

Unlike many political appointees, Berry began his job already familiar with the challenges he expects to confront in his tenure and some of the key players. He began working on federal personnel issues more than 20 years ago as the legislative director for Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who now is House majority leader. During that stint, Berry played a critical role in the negotiations over the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which established the locality pay system aimed at closing salary gaps in high-cost areas. That process introduced him to many of the labor union and employee organization leaders he now works with at OPM.

During the Clinton administration, Berry was deputy assistant secretary and then acting assistant secretary for law enforcement at the Treasury Department. Later, as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, he piloted work-life balance programs similar to those he's pursued as OPM director. And during the Bush administration, Berry continued in management roles as director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a conservation nonprofit, and then as director of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

"You start the conversation in a very different place because he has all that knowledge and experience," says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "As I have said often about this administration, they don't get to start with a blank piece of paper."

Tall Order

Even if Berry had begun his term at OPM with a blank slate, he would have filled it in quickly. Within his first two months in office, he had laid out short- and long-term agendas, tapping reinforcements in Congress and the administration to help him execute them.

Flanked by lawmakers at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Berry announced three weeks into his tenure that OPM would implement the major provisions of proposed legislation to expand telework in the federal government. The policy created a governmentwide telework council to determine best practices, directed agencies to designate telework coordinators, and required training programs for employees working remotely and their managers.

Berry's "leadership on telework was sorely needed at OPM for many years," says Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who oversaw the expansion of a telework program for Fairfax County employees when he was a local executive. Connolly says the Clinton and Bush administrations were unhelpful when it came to telework. Berry's efforts came at a time of mounting concerns about the spread of swine flu, which presented an opportunity to bill the initiative as something more than a personnel policy. At the president's request, Berry briefed Cabinet secretaries about making telework a centerpiece of their continuity of operations plans. And he treats telework as part of a larger strategy to improve work-life balance for federal employees with the help of first lady Michelle Obama, who has toured agencies as an evangelist for mental and physical health. Berry's January Body Mass Index screening took place at OPM's renovated on-site health clinic, a project he initiated as part of an agreement between OPM, the Interior Department and the General Services Administration to create a model campus for work-life balance programs.

Another one of Berry's priorities, to expand federal hiring of veterans, got a boost in November when President Obama signed an executive order creating Veterans Employment Program offices in agencies. Those offices not only will help veterans find federal jobs but also will provide assistance during their transition to civilian life.

Berry says it's been easy to reach out to senior administration leaders-including Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who are chairing the council overseeing the veterans hiring initiative-because they see human capital issues as a priority.

"I have not had to be John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness," Berry says.

At the State Department's request, he pushed his agency to expedite security clearances for employees working on civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, and he helped the Homeland Security Department win approval to expand its Senior Executive Service corps. Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Shaun Donovan approached Berry-without prompting, he says-to discuss his plans to improve HUD training programs.

At the heart of Berry's quest to shore up the government workforce is his own agency. One of his early priorities was to reorganize OPM for the first time since 2003 and revitalize an organization that he says, "had kind of been beaten on for a while." At Berry's March 2009 confirmation hearing, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, challenged the nominee to ask himself: "What am I going to do to move [OPM] out of a place where people don't feel that good about it?" Before he arrived, low rankings on surveys of the best places to work and failed projects like the one to update the federal retirement system had Berry worried he would be taking over a decimated agency, something he says turned out not to be the case.

At a town hall meeting with his new employees in June 2009, Berry said he'd found it almost impossible to determine the agency's core functions by looking at its organizational chart. Six months later, he rolled out a new structure that "anyone can look at . . . and say, 'I get what OPM is about,' " he says. It includes offices dedicated to the SES, veterans employment and diversity programs.

Hiring Help

Berry has been able to cross some items off his formidable to-do list with relative dispatch. But his next challenge-reforming the infamously convoluted federal hiring system-will require not only administrative action, but also legislation. After vetting a proposal with the Federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council, Berry is waiting on approval from the Office of Management and Budget to start pushing a package of hiring changes.

The plan would abolish the so-called rule of three, in which agencies interview the three top candidates for a position. While agencies aren't required to use it, Berry says the process, though cumber-some, has remained popular simply because hiring managers are used to it. Also, agencies would no longer require applicants to submit knowledge, skills and abilities statements in the first round of vetting, though Berry says it might be reasonable to ask finalists to submit more details. Eliminating KSAs has been a priority for Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Voinovich, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Committee. These long essays often duplicate the material in résumés, and critics say they intimidate first-time applicants and waste hiring managers' time by lengthening applications.

In June 2009, Berry and OMB Director Peter R. Orszag asked agencies to map their hiring processes and write plain English descriptions of the jobs they fill most frequently. Dec. 15, 2009, was the original deadline for agencies to report on their progress, but Berry says those efforts have taken longer than expected.

OPM is preparing to implement the hiring changes when they are finalized. In February, the agency unveiled the revamped USAJobs.gov Web site, built to accommodate slimmed-down job descriptions and social networking functions that make it easier to share that information. And Berry says he's looking forward to launching a program to recruit college students for federal jobs. "We want to create clear, clean pathways for students to join the federal service," Berry says. "Right now, that's confusing. It's nuts."

The Politics of Pay

Telework, workplace wellness and hiring reform are among Berry's more popular initiatives, but "we all know there's going to come a day when he's going to make some decision at OPM, and the unions are going to be mad at him. And suddenly the big-time honeymoon will be over," says SEA's Bonosaro. "But it won't be fatal."

That moment most likely will come when Berry rolls out a proposal to overhaul federal appraisal, pay and training systems. It's not as if employee unions haven't had time to prepare. In May 2009, Berry told reporters, "It is my belief that our federal pay system is straining and has become Balkanized to the point of a risk of failure." His former boss, Hoyer, echoed that sentiment at a conference in October 2009. The General Schedule, he said, "might last another five years, but it is not the pay system for the next generation. We owe it to the next generation of federal employees to build a new one."

While Berry is leery of committing himself to a specific plan for pay reform before conversations with federal stakeholders are complete, he says a strong performance appraisal system, and training for managers and employees so they can succeed within it, is critical. Such a performance-oriented approach is vital, he says, not only to demonstrate to taxpayers that their dollars are being well spent, but also to build a sense of confidence and excellence among employees.

"Not just our military risk their lives for their country, [but] countless thousands of civil servants do day in and day out," Berry says. "When that's the case, there's no margin of error . . . half-assed doesn't cut it."

Unions have been chary of those calls for reform. "I have to see more chicken on the bone on this kind of thing," says John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. According to Gage, Berry's focus on poor performers is demoralizing, and any performance management system should avoid burdening employees with strong records or overwhelming managers. But Gage says he would like to see an overhaul of the classification system to clearly define career paths. NTEU's Kelley says, "I disagree that it's either necessary or wise to begin the conversation by saying that anything specific needs to be done, like replacing the General Schedule system."

If history is any guide, launching a new pay system is at best a contentious exercise. The Defense Department spent years developing the performance-based National Security Personnel System only to see it be repealed in its infancy under the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization. Critics said the process for granting raises and promotions was subjective and inequitable. Defense agencies have until January 2012 to transition employees back to their former pay systems or to a new one.

A group of unions that initially united to oppose NSPS have announced a new coalition, the Federal Workers Alliance, motivated in part by the sense that it is inevitable the Obama administration will attempt significant personnel reform. William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees and chairman of the alliance, supports a holistic look at the personnel system, but he says without specific proposals it's difficult to predict the position the alliance would take.

Unions aren't the only voices sounding cautionary notes. "Superficially, salary management looks kind of simple . . . [but] to have a program that will survive year after year after year is not that simple," says Howard Risher, a compensation specialist, who was the managing consultant to OPM when the locality pay system was under development. Connolly oversaw the implementation of a pay-for-performance system in Fairfax County as chairman of its Board of Supervisors. He says the number of exceptions necessary in such a system might make it difficult to scale across the federal government. Berry said he is realistic about the difficulties of passing such significant change, much less implementing it. "I'm not sure I'd go far above 50 percent. It is still a flip of a coin here as to whether this wins or not," he says. "But we're going to give it a good faith try."

But the demise of NSPS has hastened the timetable for pay reform. Berry says he believes it would be better to have a new personnel system in place so Defense Department employees coming out of NSPS wouldn't move back to the General Schedule system only to be transitioned into a third system. "I think [Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Deputy Secretary William Lynn] are willing to give me some time to see if I can succeed in this effort," Berry says. "If we can't, at some point they have to fish or cut bait, and I understand that."

Windows of Opportunity

Whether or not Berry gets a tug on his line is not entirely within his control. He'll have to contend with a Congress already swamped by the president's ambitious agenda. "There's no guarantee that the same hefty Democratic majorities sympathetic to the mission are going to be in place next year. . . . If you want to get something done, the window is closing rapidly," Connolly says.

One of Berry's priorities, passage of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would allow OPM to extend health insurance coverage and other benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees, moved out of House and Senate committees in 2009. But it's unclear whether the bill will go up for votes in both chambers. Run-of-the-mill federal employee issues aren't "high profile, 60-vote kind of stuff," says AFGE's Gage.

And Berry has found he has much in common with Obama's chief performance officer, Jeffrey Zients. "We are joined at the hip," Berry says, noting their overlapping missions. He credits Zients, for example, with making possible an executive order re-establishing labor-management partnership councils. OPM and OMB circulated their own drafts of the order, which differed significantly on whether the administration would require agencies to negotiate with unions on issues where agencies typically retain jurisdiction. The OMB order, which preserved management control of those issues, ultimately was the one that was adopted. Tussles over workforce and budget issues are inevitable, but observers say it's important that the relationship between OPM and OMB is strong. These are formidable challenges to a formidable agenda. But it's hard to get the OPM director to complain about any aspect of his job. Some might find a proposal to give his little agency substantial new responsibility in crafting an American health care benefit plan daunting. But he says, "This is going to greatly empower us" to negotiate with the insurance companies that provide health care coverage to federal workers. And some might have been perplexed when Berry's general counsel ruled him powerless to extend domestic partner benefits to employees who have petitioned for coverage, despite pending legislation. But Berry insists the bill would provide a better opportunity to help more people. Even a Body Mass Index score that's higher than he'd like is an opportunity for him to tout the upside of being held accountable.

"I'm having a ball," Berry says. "The opportunity to do good in government service is incredible-and humbling. And I'm working real hard to try to get as much good done as I can, knowing that the clock is ticking. . . . Because I've got such a great team, I sleep well at night, and I'm pretty confident we're going to get some good points on the board." It might all be different in another year. But for now, John Berry just might be the happiest man in government.


John Berry's Checklist

  • Improving veterans hiringA governmentwide task force is at work on efforts to help vets find federal jobs and mainstream back into society.
  • Work-life balance
  • Berry has implemented the provisions of a telework bill and is creating a best practices campus at OPM to promote health and wellness.
  • Hiring and recruitment OPM revamped USAJobs.gov in January and plans to push a package of hiring reforms in Congress this spring.
  • Diversity Deputy Director Christine Griffin arrived at OPM in January to oversee these efforts, and a new division will address them.
  • Pay and personnel reform Berry says the chances of success here are a tossup, but it's important for taxpayers and federal workers alike to try to strengthen performance management.
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