The Washington Post

John Berry on revitalizing the federal workforce: Talking with the director of the Office of Personnel Management

What message do you want to share with federal employees during Public Service Recognition Week?

President Obama said it well in his letter to federal employees. They do their jobs without complaint and with little recognition. They help make America what it is by responding to the needs of our people and keeping our country safe and secure. Federal employees take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Many of them risk their lives to defend that oath and their neighbors. Since 1992, over 2,900 federal employees have lost their lives serving their country.

Public employees know how important their jobs are to securing our country and our children's future. I'm glad we have PSRW. I wish it were 365 days a year, because the federal employees work day in and day out and should be honored every day.

How do you view your role in helping to reinvigorate the federal workforce?

It’s important to eliminate red tape and unleash the creative power of our employees. What motivates people most is purpose. With the anti-government sentiment out there, we're living in a challenging time. Whether it's trying to strengthen the economic recovery, or controlling spending in an era of declining resources, these are significant challenges. Highly motivated people love a challenge. We're fortunate to start with such a well-motivated, well-trained and highly educated workforce. 

Our primary focus in reinvigorating the federal workforce is recognizing the importance of trust, flexibility and respect. They do not respond to patronizing, management-led approaches. The workforce has amazing power, and if managers and employees engage in respectful communication, the potential is unlimited, whether it's inventing new drugs to save children, protecting our environment or providing for our nation's security.

How can federal leaders attract the next generation to public service?

Remember the average age in mission control when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon was 26. Government has always been able to attract bright young minds. That was the motivating principle behind the president's executive order on student employment. Our application process had gotten too confusing. Students didn't know how to get into government. We have cut down the weeds and created three clean pathways for students and recent grads.

Part of the Student Pathways Initiative is reinvigorating the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program. Many managers today came in as PMFs years ago under this powerful program. These are future government leaders. We are working with agencies to answer the following: How can we create ongoing training and engagement? How can the agencies work to inspire them and give them an opportunity for growth?  What do they need to develop so they can become the next generation of leaders?

What are some of the leadership lessons that you learned from working on Capitol Hill?

The most important thing I learned is that no party has a lock on the truth. If you're not too bound by ideology, you can accomplish an awful lot by working across party lines. Coming together in good faith, and reasoning together, give us our best shot at approaching the truth. Compromise is not a mortal sin but an essential virtue–and the oil that keeps the government machinery running. Finally, if you don’t care who gets the credit, you can get a lot done in this town.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

Two things happened to me when I was 25. I was working in the General Assembly in Annapolis and Rep. Steny Hoyer called and asked me to work for him in Washington. I had a very comfortable job, so it was a risk. Washington was a big pond and I'd be a very small fish. Fear almost prevented me from saying yes. But by jumping in a bigger pool, I not only ended up with a great boss but a second father in Mr. Hoyer. Not being afraid to take risks has helped me and allowed me to do much, much more.

Second, I came out as a gay man. I knew in my heart that as long as I was hiding an important part of myself, I could not realize my full potential, professionally or personally. Coming out meant being honest with myself, with everyone who loved me and with people I worked with. It allowed me to achieve a level of honesty and integrity that I believe are core values in our country. It has made all the difference in my life. I would encourage young people who are debating this to be open about who you are. Honesty and integrity carry you a long way in this life and will never hurt you.

More Federal Coach leadership interviews:

Talking leadership with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro

Former US Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen on leading through disasters

Natural ‘street cred’: Talking with the head of the National Park Service

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.


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