Federal Diary: Director John Berry Envisions a More Muscular OPM

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 28, 2009

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has ambitious plans to improve conditions for federal employees and those who want to work for the government.

In a wide-ranging meeting with a small group of reporters in his office yesterday, Berry, who has been in office six weeks, listed three short-term and three long-term goals, some of which may require a magician's skill to achieve.

His short-term goals are reforming the government's recruiting and hiring practices, improving work life and workplace conditions, and pushing increased federal employment opportunities for veterans.

Berry said he hopes "to get some points on the board" within a year on those three items.

Over the longer term, he wants to increase federal workforce diversity, control federal employee health-care costs while maintaining benefits, and reform the federal pay system.

Although he doesn't have a magic wand, Berry says he does have the backing of President Obama. The director outlined a vision for the OPM that is considerably more forceful with other agencies than has been the practice. As agency heads are inclined to do, Berry invoked the president several times. If Obama and the White House in general are even half as engaged with federal employee issues as Berry indicated, it means they will get significantly increased attention.

He'll need that patronage. Berry said he knows progress on the long-term "often intractable issues" won't come quickly or easily. "I don't kid myself. I didn't come to this town yesterday," he said.

One of those is the federal pay system. Choosing his words carefully, he said it is "straining and has become balkanized to the point of a risk failure." Much of the government remains under the General Schedule, or GS, system, while some agencies, notably the Defense Department, have moved to a pay-for-performance system that many employees and union leaders condemn.

He would like to see a single, government-wide pay system, though he acknowledges that achieving it will be tough. And although union leaders who strongly support Obama have spoken harshly against current pay-for-performance programs, Berry said some elements of linking pay to performance would be part of a new system.

"I'll go a step further; the president has made it clear to me that there will be no overall reform unless that is part of it," he said, referring to employee performance appraisal and accountability. "It's got to be part of the deal. If it ain't part of the deal, there is no deal. That's the sticky wicket on which all of this rests."

In addition to a performance evaluation program that rewards outstanding work and gets rid of nonperformers, Berry's plans would include increased training opportunities for employees and a boost in federal pay to make it comparable to private-sector compensation.

That's another very sticky wicket, in part because of misleading comparisons by CNN's Lou Dobbs and others who say federal workers make much more than private-sector employees. During a May 12 segment on federal pay, Dobbs said "the American taxpayer is paying for exorbitant benefits, compensation and pay scale that are double their own average salaries."

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