John Berry named OPM director

Kevin Dietsch/Newscom

President Obama on Tuesday nominated John Berry, currently the director of the National Zoo, to lead the Office of Personnel Management.

"From turning around the National Zoo to fostering a more productive work environment at the Department of the Interior, John Berry has a tremendous record of effective management in key public service roles," Obama said. "I'm confident that he will provide that same leadership at OPM to help ensure that government works for the American people the way it should."

Karen Korpowski-Gallo, senior public affairs specialist for the zoo, said Berry would not speak to the media until after he is confirmed by the Senate.

Berry has a long history in federal workforce and management issues. He served as legislative director to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., for 10 years.

During that time, he was Hoyer's lead on federal employee policy issues, helping to guide the negotiations that led to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which established the locality pay system. Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation for Government Employees, said congressional staffers noted at the time that without Berry to manage the often-tense discussions, the legislation never would have passed.

"I can think of no better person than John Berry to lead the Office of Personnel Management," Hoyer said. "John is an incredibly qualified public servant who possesses significant management experience, great knowledge of government, and a high regard for our federal workforce. Anyone who has worked with him knows how very bright and positive a person he is. He is an excellent choice to lead OPM, and I strongly support his nomination."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Subcommittee, which will oversee Berry's nomination, also had high praise for Obama's pick.

"I know John to be a strong, capable, and passionate leader," Akaka said. "OPM is key to our government's ability to perform, because human capital is critical in everything our government does, from national security to financial industry oversight. We need someone like John who can attract talented leaders and maintain quality across federal agencies so management will be at its prime."

Berry built solid relationships with federal employee unions during his time on Capitol Hill.

John Gage, president of AFGE, said the union had recommended Berry to the Obama administration. Gage said he spoke with Berry recently and expected to work with him on a number of issues, including giving federal employees college credit for training courses, reforming the classification system and increasing union involvement in shaping the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she thought Berry would foster partnerships between management and labor.

"I believe he will play a key role in helping return respect to the federal workforce, which in turn will help attract talented and dedicated employees to public service," Kelley said. During the Clinton administration, Berry served as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at Interior, where he oversaw a number of programs to improve employees' work-life balance. He held town hall meetings to elicit suggestions, leading to upgrades to the Interior cafeteria and health center, and also improved the department's credit union and continuing education options. Berry funded a number of those enhancements through partnerships with unions, other agencies and even employees -- reducing their overall costs to the department.

At the zoo, Berry drew up a strategic plan, reorganized its management structure and completed a 20-year capital plan for its finances.

Berry is also known as an advocate for gay and lesbian federal employees. According to the Human Rights Campaign, if confirmed, he will be the highest-ranking openly gay official to serve in the executive branch in any administration.

During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service's law enforcement standards -- including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees.

Under President Bush, OPM opposed allowing the domestic partners of federal employees to receive health and retirement benefits available to heterosexual married couples. OPM argued in a 2008 congressional hearing that extending partner benefits was too risky because gay and lesbian federal employees might commit fraud to get them.

Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM's benefits policy.

"I have known John for over 15 years, and his intelligence, skills, energy, and bountiful personality will make him an extraordinary Director of OPM for all Federal employees," Hirsch said on Tuesday. "In these times of challenge, no worker should be left behind."

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said he thinks Berry will bring an innovative approach to the major challenges the federal government faces.

"We need a very talented, strong person for that job," Stier said. "The president's [outlined] an enormous agenda, and it's going to depend in large measure on whether we've got a large number of people engaged in the best way to make it happen."

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