Consider the old adage, What goes around, comes around. Often, this
refers to political appointees who return to government when their
party is elected. The other interpretation is that appointees bring
back policies that were developed the last time their party was in
power. While long-term change does occur, its often at glacial
speed because of the political issues associated with implementing
it. As a result, transformational change in policies that govern
the federal civil service rarely occurs.
Has this happened with the Obama Administrationthe party of change?
It certainly has reversed a number of personnel policies that were
adopted by the previous administration, many at the urging of
employee unions. In the article Human CapitalThe Most Critical
Asset, published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Public Manager, I
identified a number of areas of focus for the new administration.
First, the president appointed a well-known and experienced
executive as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management
(OPM). John Berry took office after serving as assistant secretary
for policy, management, and budget at the Department of the
Interior, as an aide to Congressman Steny Hoyer working on federal
employment issues, and, most recently, as director of the National
Zoo. Berry has been an effective spokesman for change in federal
personnel policy, but has not had time to advance many of his
The largest group of supporters for HR change is comprised of the
federal employee unions, such as the employee-management
cooperation. Gaining broader support in Congress will be necessary
to change laws pertaining to such issues as pay and performance.
Finally, gaining traction with the U.S. Office of Management and
Budget (OMB) and department and agency heads (for example,
improving skills of managers to lead others and using employment
and workplace flexibility such as teleworking) is absolutely
The next issue is employee-management relations. Building trust
between these two groups will help create the environment necessary
to improve pay and performance or implement greater workplace
flexibilities. Berry has done well in his dealings with the unions,
but has yet to convince many agency leaders to consider these
Performance accountability is another area of interest. No doubt
this is one of the most critical issues the administration must
address, at both employee and agency levels. Among other things,
well-functioning programs in these areas will improve public trust
in governmentas long as these systems are transparent.
Efforts are underway to work with Congress, OMB, and the agencies
to make improvements. OPM has not yet succeeded in convincing
employees the value of performance accountability, essentially
because the level of trust between employees and managers is still
low. (For more details, see results of OPMs Human Capital Surveys
Recently Berry convened a conference on pay reform. If a broad
enough range of individuals was invited and heard, it is possible
that a plan for pay reform (tied to accountability) can be crafted.
Grade: B- (but with a bulletas they say in the music business)
Agency Executive Leadership
There have been calls for a number of changes in executive
leadership from members of Congress and the Senior Executives
Association, among others. It is too early to understand how the
administration will approach this issue.
There is little doubt, however, of the critical need to build
continuity in leadership by having a good pipeline of potential
managers and executives, as well as providing them with training
and development opportunities to prepare them for advancement.
As a sign of his commitment to improving leadership development,
Berry has established a single focal point within OPM to handle all
issues related to the Senior Executive Service (SES)activities
previously were split among three OPM divisions. This process takes
commitment that transcends political changes and support (time and
money) to do it right.
The administration also should focus on the current group of
managers and executives: What is being done to help them perform
better? Again, this involves a commitment of time and money, with
responsibility falling on agencies and their highest level of
leadership. OPM will provide guidance, but cannot force agencies to
The fifth issue is talent management simplifying the hiring
process, making it more transparent, and making regulations and
policies more flexible to meet individual needs of agencies.
Berry has done a great job providing leadership in this area, but
now agencies must produce recruitment materials and processes that
are in tune with OPM changes, such as reducing the paperwork
requirement for applications. They are not doing so well.
The next issue relates to quality of work life, and there is much
to discuss. Steve W.T. OKeeffes article Telework Tango: Take Two,
From the Top offers a cogent article on teleworking, which not only
is a quality of work life issue, but also one related to continuity
of operations during emergency situations. Robert D. Childs, Gerry
Gingrich, and Michael Piller address ways to attract the Millennial
Generation, including the use of new technology, in their article,
The Future Workforce: Gen Y Has Arrived.
Baby Boomers might find it difficult to learn about these new
technologies, but I suspect most of them greatly value the
perspective, hard work, and intelligence the Millennial Generation
is bringing to government. This is an area where leaders should
allow a thousand flowers to bloom (within IT security limits) and
get on the bus or get out of the way. Its difficult to grade Berry
and OPM on this so early, but comments made by Berry indicate that
he values these changes.
Grade: Too early to tell
Finally, there is an overarching issue the administration must
address: leadership. Leadership is difficult to measure and hard to
describe. It relates to the interest and ability of an individual
to promote appropriate change and provide the culture and
environment in which change can succeed.
With regards to this important issue, Berry projects a strong role,
setting expectations for all agencies and their leaders. He has
promoted a significant number of changes that will take time to
implement and are likely subject to possible changes by others in
the administration, members of Congress, and additional
But fresh winds are blowing from the Theodore Roosevelt Building,
home of OPM. This is where Berry shines most.