John Berry, generally cheerful and beaming, turns serious when protecting the honor of federal employees. His gestures become more pointed, his gaze sharpens, his smile disappears.
Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, defended the workforce again as he prepared to leave his term-limited post Friday and await his reported (by The Washington Post’s Al Kamen) nomination as ambassador to Australia.
In addition to a solid list of accomplishments, he has at least one big frustration.
His accomplishments include overhauling a long-broken federal hiring process, reinventing confusing government internship programs, cutting the time to do security-background investigations, boosting telework, instituting labor-management forums and increasing the hiring of disabled people and Hispanics.
Berry took heat for problems with USAJobs, the government’s online jobs board, and for repeated troubles with federal employee retirement processing. But he was credited for his straightforward approach to dealing with those issues. The USAJobs embarrassment was short-lived. Retirement processing problems lingered, but OPM says it cut the backlog in half in one year.
Despite all the heartburn that the system gave the newly retired, Berry’s overall record led Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, to label him “a champion of federal workers and retirees.”
Though Berry faced major headaches from computer systems and retiree issues, his greatest frustration was something more fundamental.
“I don’t know if we succeeded in beating back those small-hearted people who somehow feel it is appropriate to denigrate public service,” he said during an interview.
“I don’t know what sort of smallness of mind or heart motivates them, but they need to understand that public service matters. And these jobs are just too important to not be able to recruit the best and the brightest to do them. . . . Do you want Homer Simpson researching cancer for your children’s diseases?”
It was President Obama, Berry’s boss, who, with congressional approval, upset federal workers by freezing their basic pay rates, a freeze now in its third year.
Obama has proposed a 1 percent pay raise for next year, paired with a requirement that employees increase contributions to their pensions.
The freeze happened on Berry’s watch, but it was largely out of his hands.
“You can’t freeze pay forever and pretend that we are going to be competitive with the Fortune 500,” he said. “This battle [to increase appreciation for federal workers] continues. I hope we have laid down some markers. . . . It’s just so important.”
He shares America’s great respect for members of the military. But he added, “I’m not sure exactly why that doesn’t translate to our men and women in civil service, who take the same oath and who, sadly, all too often pay the same ultimate price.”
On Thursday Berry unveiled a Wall of Honor memorial to the civil servants who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Just this past Saturday, civilians from the State and Defense departments were killed in Afghanistan.
OPM’s inspector general poured some rain on Berry’s going-away parade Thursday with a report about “misuse of position” by high-ranking agency employees. The report also cited mismanagement of an OPM program that provides personnel services to other agencies. The IG said a counselor to Berry and an OPM associate director “utilized their positions to give . . . preferential treatment” to a contractor. Berry requested the investigation.
“We did not identify any evidence that Director Berry engaged in any inappropriate conduct,” the report said.
“He’s had tough duty,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that studies the federal workplace.
“This has been a time of great turmoil for the federal workforce. It was an ugly hand he was dealt, and from that standpoint, he has done quite well.” (The Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership).
Leaders of employee groups generally support Berry, their comments ranging from muted to more effusive.
The nation’s financial troubles prevented him “from pursuing anything that would improve the economic well-being of federal employees,” said a statement from J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He also congratulated Berry for seeking to equalize benefits for federal employees in same-sex relationships.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, was a bit more supportive, praising Berry as “a staunch defender of the federal workforce” and for his “assertive steps to ensure the voices of frontline federal employees are heard at the highest levels of agencies.”
Bruce Moyer, chairman of the Federal-Postal Coalition, thanked Berry “for standing by federal workers’ side,” adding, “It has been a privilege to work with him.”
Under Berry, an openly gay man who was a top Obama adviser on gay and lesbian issues, the administration secured some benefits for same-sex couples but could not finish the job because of the Defense of Marriage Act. That law defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes.
He said the funniest or most ironic aspect of his tenure as the highest-ranking openly gay man in the government is being named a defendant in numerous lawsuits against DOMA.
One of his most poignant moments as OPM chief was delivering an apology on behalf of the U.S. government to Frank Kameny, an activist who was fired from the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Delivering the apology “was an amazing gift I will always treasure,” Berry said.
When Berry leaves his office — which has a bust of Teddy Roosevelt on the desk and one of George Washington along the wall — the OPM director’s trail will be marked by five executive orders and four presidential memorandums on federal workforce issues.
“There’s been no other OPM tenure period,” he said, “that has had the engagement of the president, the engagement of the White House” as actively on federal workplace issues.
The last of the executive orders called for greater diversity in the federal workforce. Berry has emphasized Uncle Sam’s need to improve the hiring of the disabled and Hispanics. OPM held the first federal disability hiring fair and says that “new hires among people with disabilities are at 20-year highs.”
Although Latinos remain vastly underrepresented in the federal workforce, particularly in the Senior Executive Service, Berry’s work is praised by Gilbert Sandate, chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government.
“Out of the four or five OPM directors we have worked with in the last 20 to 25 years, John Berry probably is the most committed to trying to address issues of diversity in the federal workforce, especially on the issue of Hispanic representation,” Sandate said. He is a member of the Hispanic Council on Federal Employment, a body Berry created.
The first of the executive orders has the title “Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government.” Increasing that employment is Berry’s “proudest accomplishment.”
“A lot of people over the years have talked about veterans’ hiring,” he said. “We did it.”
In 2009, 24 percent of new hires were veterans, according to OPM data. That rose to 28.3 percent in 2011, “the highest since the Vietnam era,” OPM said.
The number for 2012, when finalized, will be better than 2011’s, Berry said. Increasing hiring by about 5 percent “in the federal government, that’s a big step in a four-year period,” he added.
Joseph C. Sharpe, director of the American Legion’s economic division, said he is “very impressed and pleased with Mr. Berry and his attempts to ensure veterans were hired throughout the federal government. “Hate to see him go,” Sharpe said.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.