Personnel pick remains flexible on pay-for-performance systems

President Obama's personnel chief-designate on Thursday told senators he would review pay-for-performance systems with an open mind.

During a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on his nomination to become director of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry said he was amenable to any effective compensation system, but that the federal government has an obligation to ensure employees with comparable job performances receive similar pay and treatment.

"I do not come into this with any predetermined belief or commitment to anyone on these issues," he said. "We ought to see if this is working, can we transfer it. And if it's not working, let's fix it."

Berry's statement came in response to questions from Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio -- the only committee members to attend the hearing -- on how he planned to evaluate alternatives to the General Schedule, including the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System. Voinovich noted that although NSPS and the Transportation Security Administration's pay-for-performance systems have proven controversial, he has heard some success stories and would not want to rush to repeal them.

"I don't have any sacred cow that I come into this with, other than the merit principles," Berry said. "That has to be the polestar. That has to be our evaluative tool."

He also pledged to preserve veterans preference and supplement it with training programs to prepare veterans for federal jobs. And he promised comprehensive reviews of proposals to improve the security clearance and hiring processes.

Berry said it was important for agencies to use all the recruitment tools at their disposal, citing relocation benefits as an example of flexibilities that could keep agencies competitive with the private sector.

"We would regularly lose people because it costs $10,000 to $20,000 to move your family from the East to the West coast," he said. "People can't pay that out of their pockets."

The senators noted that for Berry to be effective, he would need to address some smaller-scale issues at his own agency. OPM ranked 25th out of 30 large agencies on the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service's 2007 Best Places to Work rankings.

"I think the best way you can help other agencies is to get your agency working in terms of management and in terms of employee satisfaction so you can use your agency as a role model," Voinovich said. "You're going to have to spend the next couple of years shaping that joint up."

Berry said he would hold OPM to the standards of excellence he has pursued throughout his career, setting a strategic plan and strong performance goals. He added that he would meet with individual managers and conduct regular town hall discussions. That model should encourage employee engagement at other agencies, he said, stressing the importance of partnerships between labor and management, and between political and career appointees.

"It's not a hard thing to do if you're willing to have open communication," Berry said. "My promise to our management organizations and labor organizations is there will not be surprises. I'm not a shoot from the hip kind of guy. I will bring them in on a regular basis. And I believe it's my job to make sure that's happening at other agencies."

The full Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee must vote on Berry's nomination before it proceeds to the Senate.

If confirmed, Berry would be the highest-ranking openly gay official in the executive branch. But his stance on issues affecting gay and lesbian federal employees did not come up during the hearing, except when Akaka commended him for his work combating sexual orientation discrimination at the Interior Department, where he was assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration, and when Berry's partner, Curtis Yee, was introduced. In his nomination disclosure forms, Berry noted that he makes annual contributions to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest gay rights lobbying groups.

Berry declined to comment after the hearing on the imminent introduction of a bill that would extend health and retirement benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees. He said he could not discuss specific policies until after his confirmation.

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