OPM director sees major problems, bright spots

John Berry, who was confirmed April 3 as director of the Office of Personnel Management, today painted a grim picture of what the government provides its workers and offers to potential employees.

He said diversity in the federal workforce has been “embarrassingly” limited at all levels of the government and throughout agencies. And there is still a significant gap in pay when compared with private-sector employers, particularly government contractors who can hire  experienced federal employees away from the government.

Meanwhile, the hiring process still moves at what Berry describes as a glacial pace. That's because applications are complex, time-consuming and not written in plain language, he told the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Committee's Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia Subcommittee. Despite having a nice tool belt to reach out to current federal employees and find new ones, agencies and OPM have few tools in that nice belt, he said.

“It’s a big problem, and it’s one that is going to need a lot of attention,” he said.

Berry complimented the federal workforce, saying it’s doing an incredible job and believes in its work.

Berry said his No. 1 priority is making sure the government pays its employees correctly and on time. He described that as a “must-be-done,” while improving the retirement system’s options and other issues that need attention are “nice-to-haves.”

Among those nice-to-haves, he said he intends to work on reforming the government’s complicated and incoherent hiring system, which he said “has sunk many a ship” for other OPM directors. He also wants to fix the security clearance process. President George W. Bush signed a memo in February 2008 that told the OPM director and the director of national intelligence to streamline the clearance process. In past studies, the Government Accountability Office found that OPM needed an average of 286 days to complete initial investigations for top-secret clearances.

On a broader scale, Berry said OPM’s mission to have an effective civilian workforce is a low-bar goal. As director, he instead wants to broaden that mission to making the federal government the model employer for the United States.

“It’s the path that we can work toward,” he said.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the subcommittee's former chairman, said OPM is really only “an adviser and recommender,” rather than an office that can drive initiatives.

OPM can talk and encourage agencies, but those agencies often go their own way, such as in the hiring process, creating the current incoherent hiring systems and policies, several officials agreed.

“It just doesn’t have it,” Davis said about OPM, adding that its name should be changed to “the Office of Personnel Recommendations.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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