Obama's Choice for OPM Director Faces Daunting Challenges

By Max Stier
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, March 3, 2009; 5:05 PM

President Obama has named National Zoo Director John Berry to lead the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Berry's new job will make getting giant pandas to reproduce look easy.

As difficult as the task may be, the key to succeeding is quite simple. Berry needs to change OPM from an agency that says, "No, you can't," to one that says, "Yes we can."

OPM's official mission is to ensure the federal government has an effective civilian workforce. That's a pretty daunting proposition. Now, consider that key human resources functions like recruiting, hiring and training are decentralized across the federal government, and you get a sense of the challenges facing an OPM director.

With agencies in charge of their own human capital practices, OPM can only succeed if it is an effective collaborator. Unfortunately, rather than view OPM as a vital partner, too many federal agencies see it as a scolding parent.

In many ways, OPM's unflattering reputation stems from the agency simply doing its job. In addition to offering many HR services, OPM is charged with enforcing federal HR policies. These guidelines are supposed to be a means to build an effective workforce, but, too often, OPM falls into the trap of treating them as the end.

When agencies seek approval to experiment with new ways to attract and retain talent, OPM routinely says no, putting the brakes on innovation rather than trying to help the agency find an alternative way to achieve its goals within the rules. Of course OPM does say yes on occasion, but often agencies must demonstrate failure or a significant problem before they receive special authorities. Granting flexibilities before something is broken seems like the more prudent course.

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