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New boss moves quickly to change sluggish Patent Office

By Ed O'Keefe
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You know things are bad at a government agency when a Cabinet secretary says as much while swearing in the new boss. It happened at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in August, when Commerce Secretary Gary Locke showed up to swear in the new director, David Kappos, and told the rank-and-file that the agency's backlog had a negative impact on the country's economic competitiveness.

Even Kappos's official biography mentions the agency's woes, noting that the PTO has a backlog of more than 770,000 patent applications, "long waiting periods for patent review, information technology systems that are regarded as outdated and an application process in need of reform."

Kappos arrived at the patent office as a former customer of the agency. He previously served as vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at IBM, managing the company's patent and trademark portfolios. He's earned early credit from colleagues, union leaders and agency veterans for quickly addressing several issues of concern.

The most pressing matter is the length of time it takes the agency to approve -- or deny -- a patent application. It takes more than three years in many cases to get a final answer.

"Imagine in the commercial world any service provider where if you sent the service provider money and a request for service and they said, 'Thanks, we'll get back to you in three years.' You'd say that's insane, unacceptable," Kappos said in a recent interview.

Beyond the lag time, observers agree that the agency is in dire need of modernization and a morale boost. The economic downturn also means fewer inventors and corporations are paying patent application fees, which is the agency's only funding source.

But the PTO took an encouraging step Friday, when patent examiners approved changes that help determine how long they have to complete patent examinations and the incentives they earn. Kappos got the ball rolling shortly after he arrived by getting agency officials and union representatives into a room to draft changes to the "count system" for the first time in more than 30 years.

"I locked the door and said, 'I want a new system that does no harm to our employees, that gives examiners more time to do their work, that incentivizes parts of the process early in the process,' " he said. Kappos also promised to meet with negotiators every week while they worked on the changes and mandated an Oct. 1 deadline. Then, he said, he walked out of the room.

"It's Management 101, it's how it works in the real world and that's what I'm doing here at the U.S. PTO," he said.

"This, I think, went beyond what we'd normally do in a negotiation," said Robert Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, which represents patent examiners.

"It's a different kind of paradigm for us, and one that I hope bodes well for the future for the relationship between the union and the agency," he said.

Todd Dickinson, former director of the PTO and current president of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, said Kappos "not only comes with a lot of good will, but his early steps have been very sure-footed on just exactly the kinds of things the [intellectual property] community wants to see."

His transition to public service wasn't as sure-footed, because Kappos said the slow, deliberative process of governing was new to him.

"It's got to move at a speed where the public can have input, and that means checks and balances, and things that move more slowly than in the private sector," he said.

"I wouldn't say it's been a frustration or an impediment," he continued. "I'd say it's making sure I get good advice and staying with the team and learning the rhythm that government works at."

But that outside perspective means Kappos "is kind of like a consumer going in there to help out," said Jeffrey A. Lindeman, a former PTO employee now working as a patent attorney with O'Brien Jones in McLean.

"We're all looking forward to what he's going to do," Lindeman said.

Keep ideas coming

Think federal employees don't care about saving taxpayers money? Think again: The Office of Management and Budget received 38,484 cost-saving ideas for its first-ever SAVE Awards. The winner gets a meeting with President Obama and their idea included in the proposed fiscal 2011 federal budget. The White House launched a similar contest on Monday, in hopes of getting the rank-and-file's ideas on reducing the government's environmental footprint.

Federal workers can register and submit ideas for the GreenGov Challenge at http://www.whitehouse.gov/greengov. Participants will vote on the best ideas, which will then be shared with senior government officials working on agency sustainability plans. But no promise of a face-to-face meeting with the president.

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management hopes federal employees will start worrying about their waistlines. The agency will launch its Feds Get Fit program on Oct. 27 on the National Mall. Similar events will be held for federal workers in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Washington, Redskins defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander and other athletes will share tips on healthy living. Perhaps federal employees can give Lorenzo some tips on how to win a football game?

Learn more about the new initiative at FedsGetFit.gov.

Joe Davidson is away. He will resume writing this column when he returns. Send your questions and comments to federaldiary@washpost.comand read Ed O'Keefe's blog, the Federal Eye, at http://washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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