In 2009, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was in a state of crisis. The backlog of pending patent applications was enormous and growing. The process for reviewing patents had not changed in decades and was out-of-date. Employee job satisfaction was low and the longstanding distrust between management and the patent examiners union was ever-present.
In the last several years, all of that has changed dramatically with a series of bold reforms and new business practices that were implemented by a team led by Margaret Focarino, then the deputy and now the commissioner for patents.
Working with labor and the backing of agency leadership, Focarino negotiated and implemented the first significant changes to the patent examiner work processes in 30 years, which included giving examiners more time and flexibility to handle cases. She created new incentives for examiners to reach their goals; developed new performance requirements for examiners and managers; increased employee training and leadership development opportunities; oversaw a major hiring initiative; and developed a comprehensive set of metrics to monitor patent quality.
As a result of these and other steps, the USPTO lowered the backlog of unexamined patent applications even as submissions increased; shortened the amount of time it takes to process applications; improved the quality of the examinations; reduced employee attrition; and raised the level of employee job satisfaction.
“The agency is doing higher-quality work and more work per person than ever before, and that can be attributed to Peggy Focarino’s leadership,” said Dave Kappos, who served as undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the USPTO from 2009 to early 2013.
“She knew how to engineer huge change, get people to enthusiastically follow and make the changes stick,” said Kappos. “She has a deep understanding of the issues, knows how to motivate people, listen to their concerns, respond to various constituencies and handle ‘the little politics.’”
Patents are important tools for many businesses, providing innovators powerful incentives to develop new technologies that improve the quality of life and advance human knowledge. As intellectual property, patents help support 40 million jobs and contribute $5 trillion to the gross national product. Both the speed and quality of patents issued is essential to maintaining this integral part of the national economy.
Teresa Stanek Rea, the acting undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and acting director of the USPTO, said an intellectual property and technology boom has been taking place, but the USPTO was not able to handle it.
“The changes implemented by Peggy Focarino have generated an internal renaissance at the USPTO, translating into enhanced stewardship of the intellectual property system,” said Rea.
Since the start of the reforms, the backlog of unexamined applications, which was more than 750,000 in 2009, dropped to less than 590,000 by August 2013—a 21 percent reduction despite a 5 percent average increase in filings per year.
The USPTO also has made great strides in reducing the amount of time it takes for applicants to have their applications processed. Applicants filing an application today will, on average, receive an initial determination within 16.5 months, compared to approximately 27.2 months in 2009. Moreover, the time it takes the USPTO to process an application, from start to finish, is 29.8 months, down from 34.3 months from August 2009.
Final dispositions of patent applications are 96.2 percent compliant with applicable laws and regulations, compared to 93.6 percent in 2008, providing greater certainty to innovators and entrepreneurs about the merits of their inventions. In addition, the USPTO placed fifth among 292 agency subcomponents in the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® job satisfaction and engagement rankings compared with 172 out of 222 five years ago.
Focarino, a USPTO employee for almost 37 years, said Kappos, her boss when the major changes were implemented, gave her the authority she needed to sit down with labor and reinvigorate the patent system.
“We developed a mutual level of trust and respect with the union, and began to agree on small and significant changes,” said Focarino. “We started talking principles, and about what the union wanted and what management wanted, and the basic principles were pretty much the same.”
Focarino, who started her USPTO career as a junior patent examiner, said the changes came about more rapidly than ever expected, with the agency now a better place to work and the American public getting the benefit of “higher quality patents in a more timely fashion.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.