Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry. Russel A. Daniels/AP

Congress urged to slow down on pay and benefits reforms

OPM chief warns lawmakers from both parties that meddling too much could hurt recruiting.

The flurry of recent congressional proposals to cut federal pay and benefits could damage recruitment and retention if changes are not slowed and allowed to settle, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said Tuesday.

Though not all the bills are motivated by the desire to attack federal workers, Berry said he has been working both sides of the aisle to impress upon lawmakers that “the private sector knows that if you tweaked retirement every week, you wouldn’t be able to recruit” top employees.

Speaking during the Federal Managers Association’s 74th annual national convention in Arlington, Va., Berry said the two-year civilian pay freeze alone has had an enormous impact on the workforce and he “hopes people of good will will maintain control and head off a major new retirement proposal.” The theme of the convention was “doing more with less.”

Berry congratulated managers for “leading the charge” on the current OPM initiatives on diversity as well as telework. “A founding principle of the civil service is that inclusion is not only fair, it makes good business sense” to draw from “pools of untapped talent” such as Hispanics and people with disabilities, he said.

The key reason for managers to embrace telework, according to Berry, is to get comfortable with the practice so government can be resilient in case of a disaster. “Think of the impact on the economy” if a federal office such as one providing farm grants suddenly can’t operate, he said. That’s on top of the well-known benefits of telework such as reduced traffic and commutes and “a quieter workplace with fewer interruptions,” Berry added. The practice also economizes, he said, pointing to $200,000 a year that was saved by closing a Pittsburgh call center and moving its staff to a telework arrangement.

The challenge for managers is trust, Berry said: “Many feel there is a risk because with certain employees, you can’t just swing by and see them working.” But in last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, one-fourth of respondents said their boss wouldn’t let them work remotely, and those were the same employees who gave their agencies lower scores on other satisfaction questions. “People who don’t feel trusted aren’t going to be happy,” he said, encouraging managers to “face the future with an open mind” and sit down and have the discussion, even though not all jobs lend themselves to telework.

Managers have to “establish performance expectations and hold employees accountable,” Berry said. “In short, teleworking requires good management. The technology and the security issues have been resolved. The last piece in the puzzle is management support for maintaining productivity and resilience.”

Berry also highlighted OPM’s efforts to improve training, citing the military’s know-how in avoiding “the critical mistake” of simply promoting managers who perform well and then telling them to “sink or swim.” He promised to have all Senior Executive Service appointees receive training in their first year and every three years thereafter.

“Training also fits into the broader framework of performance management,” Berry said. He reviewed OPM’s recent leadership training initiative called GEAR, which stands for Goals, Engagement, Accountability and Results. It is being piloted at OPM, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs departments.

GEAR encourages managers to help employees align their individual goals with those of the agency and to take responsibility for their contributions to team efforts. Supervisors should provide quarterly, if not monthly, documented feedback to employees on their performance.

The GEAR effort is a successor to OPM’s Results-Only Work Environment pilot launched among 400 employees in April 2010. Berry told reporters after his speech that ROWE’s results were a “mixed bag,” in part because the training was not front-loaded and the metrics and goals weren’t always clear. He promised a report on it soon, and one on GEAR by the end of this year.

“A lot of it is familiar and appears to be common sense, but it is not common practice,” he said. Central to the effort to boost performance is having managers “who are willing to engage in difficult conversations that give workers honest, helpful criticisms. They are as difficult to give as take,” he said.

Berry recalled supervising an employee who was “very loud and mean” to others. Berry -- then a manager at the Interior Department-- called in the employee and said, “Look, we have a problem,” and informed him that he would be fired if he didn’t improve. Four weeks later, the employee came back and thanked Berry for the message, explaining that he had grown up in a family in which shouting was common and he simply thought that was what he was supposed to do.

“I believe poor performers are few and far between, but they have an oversized impact on the team and the public,” he said. “We don’t have a lot to waste, so if a few people can’t or won’t improve, we must hold them accountable.” He urged managers to back submanagers who propose remedial action, and to not be afraid to risk getting involved in details. “If we don’t, we’re providing aid and comfort to those who would attack us, now and in the future,” he said.

Addressing the current austerity in government, Berry said, “You rarely do more with less. You do less with less. So the question is, ‘What can we do without?’ ” He said OPM had curbed spending on multiple IT devices for the same employee and had consolidated some leadership training programs. “No more bringing the same training program over and over to each agency,” he said. On the current backlog of retirement processing, Berry told reporters that “the cavalry is coming over the hill.” He said OPM was working with a Navy Six Sigma team and had taken a suggestion from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and hired retirees as part-time help, though they’re still in training. He said his agency is now ahead of schedule, having processed 10,000 cases in February, a 50 percent improvement over the rate one year ago.

Berry thanked the federal managers for their years of service, integrity and commitment to service. “It’s clear today that it’s up to you to make sure your employees have the tools, training and equipment to succeed, and the information needed to do their jobs so that we get the most for every dollar and high-quality service for America,” he said.

He asked them not to allow “uncertain things to shake us,” asserting that Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower all faced great uncertainties. “They rose to their make-or-break moments,” Berry said. “Let us, as leaders in the 21st century, so rise.”