From the lesson plan in how to get ahead in government, John Berry style:
A press officer has embarrassed your agency during a snowstorm. You e-mail the director on his BlackBerry at 5 a.m. and tell him he’s taking a beating on WTOP radio, a public relations disaster. Then you get chewed out by your bosses for going above them and straight to the top guy.
What did Office of Personnel Management chief John Berry do? Gave the guy a shout-out across the agency and a cash reward —for breaking the rules.
On Tuesday, Berry, the federal government’s chief People Person as he likes to call himself, recounted the story as a lesson in how to listen to your employees and promote an open culture —in government!—to get better results.
Last January’s fast-moving storm descended at rush hour on a weekday, creating gridlock in the Washington region when thousands of government workers hit the road for home at the same time. Berry had made the call to send them home early, but many stayed to finish their work, seeing no snow. By the time they left the office, however, wet, heavy snow was pelting the region during the afternoon rush.
The personnel agency’s press officer was awakened at dawn the next morning by reporters for WTOP radio and Federal News Radio, anxious to interview Berry about his decision to close the government at what may have been the wrong time.
“I’m in bed, I can’t help you,” was the staffer’s response. “I really need to sleep.” The Twitterverse began buzzing, and it was angry.
The radio stations took the unresponsive response right on air, and Berry had a public relations disaster on his hands just as he was coming in for heavy criticism for his storm response.
He revealed to a crowd of technology and government leaders Tuesday that a quick-thinking member of his staff named Sean e-mailed him and valiantly saved the day. Berry quickly called the radio stations to smooth their ruffled feathers and set up interviews.
“Seeing a problem that needed to be addressed immediately, Sean e-mailed me directly,” said Berry, keynote speaker at FedTalks, a conference sponsored by FedScoop on how innovation can change government. “I was able to call... and defuse the situation.”
But in another act of backward-thinking bureaucratic culture, the senior analyst in OPM’s Internal Oversight and Compliance department, was punished for breaking the rules, Berry said at the Warner Theatre.
“So when Sean did the right things, his supervisors said, ‘Great work crisis averted,’ right?” Berry recalled. “No, they chewed him out!”
An open culture apparently isn’t something that happens in government too often.
“As most of you probably know, standard procedure in too many organizations doesn’t encourage this type of action,” Berry said. “Instead, it encourages you to tell your supervisor, who tells her supervisor, and so on, until it’s too late.”
Berry said he backed Sean’s actions openly within the agency and gave him an on-the-spot cash award of $500.
Not a bad way to get through a snowstorm.