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OPM chief Berry stepping down this week

Apr. 11, 2013 - 02:07PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on Thursday announced he will step down when his four-year term expires at the end of this week.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on Thursday announced he will step down when his four-year term expires at the end of this week. (Office of Personnel Management)

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on Thursday announced he will step down when his four-year term expires at the end of this week.

General Counsel Elaine Kaplan will take over as acting director April 15, Berry said in an e-mail to OPM employees.

In his farewell message, Berry thanked OPM’s nearly 5,800 employees for their service.

“From my first day on the job through to today, I’ve known that I could count on this team to accomplish great things,” Berry said. “Together we undertook big challenges.”

After taking over OPM, Berry quickly became known for his optimistic and passionate speeches defending federal employees. As the political winds soured on civil servants in recent years, Berry continued speaking up for feds. At a March labor-management meeting, an angry-sounding Berry warned that the government risks becoming unable to recruit and retain a qualified workforce if it keeps freezing employees’ pay, cutting their benefits, and publicly denigrating them.

“I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff,” Berry said in March.

In Thursday’s e-mail, Berry did not say what his next step will be, but the Washington Post has reported that he is in the running to be the next ambassador to Australia.

In his e-mail to OPM employees, Berry listed numerous agency accomplishments over the last four years, such as:

• Improving the government’s hiring process by eliminating lengthy knowledge, skills and abilities questionnaires, simplifying and shortening job announcements, and requiring agencies to accept resumes from new applicants.

• Creating a new three-tiered system for hiring student interns and recent graduates called the Pathways Program.

• Conducting more than 2 million background investigations each year, and getting the Defense Department’s security clearance process taken off the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list.

• Extending federal health insurance to firefighters and emergency response workers.

But Berry’s tenure at OPM also had some bumps. OPM’s revamped USAJobs website was plagued with problems when it launched in October 2011 and repeatedly crashed. Berry later admitted the problems were so severe that he considered pulling the plug on the entire project; but after a few weeks, OPM fixed the troubled site.

In his farewell message, Berry said OPM has processed more than 29 million job applications since USAJobs was relaunched, and said OPM is now receiving “feedback that’s better than ever.”

After a 2010 Federal Times story highlighted the ongoing problem of OPM’s sluggish processing of new retirees’ pensions, which left many retirees waiting longer than six months for their full pensions, Berry called the problem his highest priority and pledged to fix it once and for all. In early 2012, Berry unveiled a wide-ranging plan to reform OPM’s pension system — through a combination of increased staff and streamlined processes — that is showing results.

OPM is now regularly processing well over 10,000 pension claims a month, reaching an all-time record of 15,333 claims processed in February. And although more federal employees are retiring than expected, the increased processing capability has allowed OPM to get its backlog of pending claims down to 36,603, from a January 2012 high of 61,108.

In 2010, Berry announced an ambitious flexible work scheduling experiment at OPM called the Results-Only Work Environment Program, or ROWE, which he hoped would eventually revolutionize the way the government gets its work done. But OPM’s ROWE pilot test fizzled and was abandoned by early 2012. A 2011 report obtained by Federal Times concluded that under ROWE, managers proved unable to hold poor performers accountable, work quality slumped in some cases, and employees had no idea if they were succeeding because they weren’t getting enough managerial feedback.

OPM later launched a new effort to improve performance management called Goals-Engagement-Accountability-Results, or GEAR. Berry said lessons learned during the ROWE experiment helped OPM create the GEAR program.

And Berry in 2010, Berry helped restart labor-management partnerships patterned after those that in place during President Clinton’s administration. But unions have repeatedly complained that frontline managers are still excluding local labor unions from the decision-making process and only engaging them after decisions have been made.

When Berry first came to OPM, he frequently discussed the need to overhaul the civil service and the way federal employees are paid. He even appeared open to transitioning to a pay-for-performance system. But that talk eventually faded. Unions resisted efforts to change the six-decade-old General Schedule system, and no progress has been made — either at OPM or on Capitol Hill — to even start considering civil service reform, beyond creating the GEAR program.

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