First lady attends OPM ceremony, praises civil servants

Evan Vucci/AP

First lady Michelle Obama said on Thursday that civil servants will play a critical role in implementing President Obama's reform agenda.

"We need you," Obama told OPM employees during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for John Berry, the agency's new director. "Barack Obama cannot make the changes that we hope [for] without strong employees. That has to start here in this office if it's going to emanate through the entire federal government….Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work."

Obama said she was particularly concerned about the work-life balance issues employees face during difficult times, and the role OPM could play in keeping the federal workforce healthy and strong.

"That's why I take on this cause, because we all struggle to make sure we're not just good workers," she said. "It's important for you all to remember how important that work-life balance is in maintaining a strong and committed workforce."

The first lady praised Berry as "not just a nice person but a smart person," as he was sworn in by OPM former Director Constance Newman, who served under President George H.W. Bush and whom Berry described as a mentor. Berry pledged to listen to innovative proposals for federal reform, and said his goal was to make the agency a model for the rest of the federal government.

"Our mission is to ensure an effective workforce for the nation…. We want our workforce to be the model for best practices for the world," he said. "At OPM, our culture will thrive, advance and succeed because our minds are as open as my door and our offices."

During his remarks, Berry introduced Frank Kameny, a civil servant who was fired from the Army's Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Kameny became a pioneering gay rights activist, and Berry said Kameny's efforts made his appointment possible. Berry is the first openly gay person to serve as head of an executive agency.

"It is the president's and my opinion that employees should only be judged by their ability to do the job and their performance on the job, and not by any other irrelevant practice," he said.

The first lady also called for a new commitment to equality in the civil service.

"Our nation is best served when the principles of excellence and diversity guide the federal government's hiring practices, when we uphold the merit system principles that call for recruiting the most talented individuals from all segments of society, when we demand that employees are treated fairly and equitably, when employees are paid equally for equal work," she said.

Berry said after his swearing-in that he thought the federal government had not made enough progress in improving the diversity of its workforce, but he hoped his new deputy director, former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Vice Chairwoman Christine Griffin, would help him review policies that could be used to advance diversity.

"Quite frankly, I think we have failed at our efforts in the past 20 years," Berry said. "We don't have much progress to show. It's going to be one of my focal areas."

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