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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

A Merit System for the 21st Century?

The Maxwell School of Syracuse University

September 11, 2009

Hello Maxwell School! I am very proud to be here with you as an alum who sat in the very chairs you sit in today.

When I was your age, Professor Scotty Campbell had just returned from creating OPM and serving as its first leader during the Carter administration.

It is one thing for a professor to rise to such a position - it is quite another for a student. As a boy from Rockville, MD, I never imagined I would be called by the President and given the chance to carry the Maxwell flag to OPM once more.

This is all the more special because I believe this is an historic opportunity for comprehensive reform of our civil service system. The stars are aligned in a way that occurs only once in a generation. We have a President who deeply values service and wants to restore the dignity and respect for our civil service to what it was during Kennedy's stirring call. We have a Congress that is willing to help and a public that increasingly recognizes that our current approaches to hiring, rewarding, appraising and training our employees are inadequate.

The United States Civil Service is an elite corps of dedicated professionals, heirs to a proud tradition. Led by the President of the United States, our service to our country and humanity spans the globe. The story of the U.S. Civil Service reaches back two centuries and touches every field of human endeavor.

From arresting the likes of Al Capone to walking on the moon - Elliot Ness and Neil Armstrong were GS employees, as were environmentalists Rachel Carson and Bob Stanton, my friend and the first African American to lead the National Park Service.

Federal workers like these are the people who brought you the lunar landing, who rebuilt the world after war, who cure disease, fight crime, protect our Constitution and advance our civilization.

Without them - all is lost. With you: all is possible. We need you and your talents, passion and creativity in government.

And let me tell you who you'll be joining. Unsung heroes who quietly go about the business of making the United States a nation where we can drink the water, breathe the air, and travel safely.

In most instances, citizens go about their daily lives unaware of the work these civil servants do and the risks they take. And yet, since 1995, over 2,186 have made the supreme sacrifice of their lives on behalf of their neighbors and country. They do not work for recognition. They know the value of their mission and the nobility of service.

However, there is an increasing risk that the nation will not be able to continue to attract and retain the best and brightest employees who have made this nation great. The very procedures that were supposed to ensure that job applicants are evaluated based on merit are discouraging applicants from completing the arduous quest of actually getting a civil service job.

We must make changes now if we are to maintain the quality of our civil service. We've got a lot of work to do. First, we must end the denigration of our civil servants and stop using them as political footballs. For 30 years, public servants have been denigrated and maligned by both parties. These attacks weren't only misguided - they were dead wrong. Civil servants are every bit as efficient as the private sector - if not more so. Their integrity and dedication are unsurpassed.

And to honor their service, we have principles that cannot be compromised. Today, I'll be speaking about one of those principles that must stand firm always - our core principle: Merit.

It's time to reinvigorate merit for the 21st century. There is so much entrepreneurial energy in America. So much dynamism. So many people who are hungry for a challenge and an opportunity to meet it.

If you're one of those smart, ambitious people and you come into a well-run company and show leadership potential, they'll put you on the fast-track. They'll send you to the management trainee program and promote you and give you a bonus. And in return, you'll work harder. From your new higher position, your hard work will pay off more. And the company will succeed. Everybody wins.

Not in government.

Too often, you'll run into an HR system and culture that too often favors red tape, inertia over initiative. You'll find that a lot of extra effort may get you a little more reward, but not that much. So you'll get disheartened. You'll either settle for the slower pace, or you'll get restless and leave. If that happens, everybody loses.

We can do so much better. We have to empower our workers and channel their energy into solving our problems. We have an economy to rebuild, two wars to support, crumbling infrastructure to repair, a pandemic flu to stop, and a planet in peril of climate change.

We need to get the best people into the Federal government, and once they're here, we need to get them to the right places. We need to build that eye for talent that elevates the wheat and tosses out the chaff.

In a growing company, that can be done by one or a few people, and the success or failure of the company depends largely on their ability to identify, hire, and promote talented people.

We have 1.9 million employees in government. We hire 300,000 people a year, give or take. One set of eyes can't do it. We need systems. And we need them urgently. Getting the best people into the positions where they're most needed is, in my opinion, one of the greatest organizational challenges facing the Federal government today.

The problem here is the systems, not the people. Every day I come to work, I see great employees and great managers who are hamstrung by regulations that are unnecessary or have outlived their usefulness.

I believe deeply in public service. I had my dream job running the National Zoo, but I left it to serve the people who serve America - because public servants are my heroes.

We are a strong, professional public service. This shows in the smooth transition of power from one president to the next, which we take for granted.

We do not need to be reinvented.

But we do need to reinvigorate and unshackle our best resource - our people. Our hiring system is broken. Five decades after the last major attempt at pay reform, the cracks are showing. A significant and growing number of our employees are not in the GS pay system. This system cannot stand another three decades, let alone five. We could limp along for a few more years in the current GS system, or we can seize this moment to build something new.

The central question I ask all of you today is: "How do we practice the principle of merit in the 21st Century?" Let me add some sub-questions to that to inform our discussion. These are the central questions that I want your help on, so I'll lay them out, give some thoughts of my own, and then open it up for discussion.

How do we define and appraise merit today? How do we make our system flexible enough to let the best workers and managers run as fast and as far as their talent and drive can take them, but fair enough to keep the system from running amok? How do we motivate and reward good performance, and address poor performance, without cronyism or favoritism? How do we train, educate, and develop workers over the course of their careers to make the most of their abilities?

These are the four questions I propose. I certainly don't have all the answers, and that's why I'm searching far and wide - discussing these issues not only with the professional staff of OPM and other government agencies, but also with academics and students like you, our labor unions, and some of America's most innovative private sector employers.

Last week, my staff and I participated in a roundtable discussion with leaders from these different stakeholder groups. I was there to listen, and what I heard very clearly from them is that our people are our first asset. They are an investment and not a cost, and we need to get back to treating them that way.

But the roundtable and events like this one are only the beginning. We've got a long way to go in developing this initiative and I need your help. Let me lay out some initial thoughts on these questions, foundations, if you will, for four pillars of civil service reform and then we'll open it up for discussion.

So first: How do we define and appraise merit today? How has revolutionary change in the world around us redefined merit in the Federal workplace?

By way of background, our Nation's needs have changed dramatically over the last 125 years, and our civil service has changed with it. Our Nation has grown and the sum of human knowledge has grown. And the complexity of the tasks facing government has grown in tandem.

A century ago, merit might have meant that a worker flawlessly hand copied documents or typed 100 words per minute. And that competency might be all that was required over the course of one's career.

Not any more.

I'm not here to philosophize about the proper size of government; that's not my role. But it's a simple fact that 125 years ago, there were no nuclear power, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, or financial derivatives industries. And if Enron didn't destroy the notion that these businesses could police themselves, surely the events of the last two years have.

Our Federal workforce today needs people who can understand all aspects of our rapidly evolving economy, provide expert advice to our elected and appointed officials, and serve as cops on the beat, faithfully executing our laws to protect the American people. Our 21st century definition of merit must be geared towards them.

It must assess critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It must assess how well a worker has kept up with changes in his or her field, and contributions he or she is making to the field beyond his or her immediate job requirements. Shouldn't a good appraisal system evaluate the whole worker, and do so over the entire course of her career?

Instead of meticulously parsed grades and steps, maybe we should consider career ladders with just three stages: apprentice, journey-level, and expert. What if we drew bright lines between these stages, and had a high bar to enter each? Would having your rank follow you no matter what job you're doing, instead of having it tied to a specific position, be more appropriate for the 21st century?

What if you could go from one job to the next at the level you belong, without the HR staff needing to shoe-horn a justification for it?

Maybe such a three-stage system could help ensure that we're promoting the best people, and it would take some of the pressure off of the hiring decision. We don't want hiring managers to be paralyzed by the thought that they're hiring people for life.

Maybe the entire apprentice stage is probationary or maybe the probationary period is shorter, but instead we require an affirmative step to keep someone on at the end of their probation instead of automatically tenuring them.

So we have the concept of setting a high bar at the beginning of each of the three stages. What might that bar look like? For me, the three most important qualities are fairness, comprehensiveness, and transparency. Fairness means that we build workable standards, apply them uniformly, hear all voices, and do not leave ultimate decisions at one person's discretion.

Comprehensiveness means that we look at the entire breadth of your professional contributions, both inside and outside the office.

What training courses have you taken? Where have you published and presented? What seminars have you gone to? Who have you mentored or recruited? What volunteer work have you done? Pro bono doesn't have to be only for lawyers. We can't be so zealous in avoiding irrelevant factors that we neglect to look at the whole person.

Transparency means that the promotion process and criteria are clearly spelled out for people, and the results explained. Transparency is key to getting buy-in from workers, and from the public.

One possible way to achieve these goals might be through performance review boards.

They could be composed of colleagues from the employee's field, managers, labor representatives, or the public. What if boards could review personnel files, do their own research and listening, and reach independent judgments that would be accepted by all stakeholders?

Their operation could reinforce the underlying principle that seniority may, but does not always equal merit.

Our next pillar is flexibility. How do we give our people room to run, but not to run amok?

One thing I think we need to consider is a results-only work environment, or ROWE. This is what they did at Best Buy - the "work sucks" model, where you throw out the time clock, unchain people from their desks, and say "we don't care where or when or how you work, as long as you get the job done." Why can't we let folks pick up their kids from school and then finish work once the kids are in bed?

Have you ever been in a government office when it shut down midday for snow? I remember one time when the announcement went out that the agency was shutting down at 3pm for snow. You never saw people so happy just to get out two hours early. It wasn't because they all hated their jobs, it was because of the rigid time-clock system.

In a ROWE system, it's just the opposite. It would treat our employees like responsible adults, and if we do it right, with proper training for workers and managers and flexibilities like telework and alternate work schedules, it will boost morale, increase productivity, and deliver good value to our taxpayers.

Switching gears, another idea for increasing flexibility might be entirely eliminating classification - the system that parses the grades and steps and attempts to define every job in great detail. The classification system was designed with a noble purpose - to ensure equal pay for equal work. And that is a core value to which we must pay great deference.

But when it prevents managers from adapting their job responsibilities to the ever-shifting responsibilities of their departments, it becomes a millstone. And classification today has become so stilted, and our HR staffers have become so used to manipulating it, that in the words of one of them, "a good classifier could make a Dixie cup a GS-14."

Classification today is not protecting the equal pay principle. But it is taking up a lot of time, and it is limiting our flexibility to define jobs properly and promote the best people quickly.

So maybe we should scrap it entirely? I spoke a few minutes ago about the high bar to get from stage to stage - from apprentice to journey-level to expert. But what about within stage - what happens in between those big promotions? A lot of people will retire at journey-level after a long, fulfilling career; not everyone will want to be an expert, so they'll only face the promotion board once in their career. As will some people with advanced degrees and extensive qualifications who will enter government service at journey-level, or maybe even experts.

How do we motivate and reward good performance, and address poor performance?

This is not an easy nut to crack. I don't think anyone, private sector or public, would come up to you and say "we've nailed performance appraisal, here's the solution." Parents don't like to go home and tell their kids when they're messing up; we shouldn't expect it to be easy in the workplace.

But we're going to take a shot at it. Building a new performance appraisal system, getting agency, manager, and worker buy-in, and backing it with the training and resources it needs to succeed, will pay huge dividends now, and far into the future.

What if managers and employees together had to craft the "must-dos" and the "nice-to-dos" of the job? What if managers were actually given training on how to have difficult conversations in the workplace? What if we mandated a six-month and year-end review where the employee was clearly told that they were in one of three categories:

  • "In good standing" - for the 80-90% of workers who are doing a solid job.

  • "Outstanding" - for the 5-10% who have really helped move the ball on achieving core agency mission and results.

  • Or "not in good standing" for the 5% of workers who are in need of improvement or removal.

At the end of it, we need to build a timely appeals process that ensures fairness. What if we modeled something after our jury system? With a panel with representatives from labor, management, and other stakeholder groups that would review your file, hear your case, and get you a quick decision. But frivolous complainers beware, because this panel can move your ratings in both directions, not just up. And managers beware - because they could discipline you too if you weren't doing your job.

As much as we wish it weren't so, in any organization with 1.9 million employees, there are going to be a few bad apples, and it should not take years to fire one of them. The decision to fire someone has to be fair and the reasons have to be clear. It has to be reviewed, because the power to take away someone's livelihood shouldn't rest in one person's hands.

But we have to think of our other workers, too. Nobody likes to carry dead weight and nobody should have to. I've had a couple times in my career where I've had to fire people who just weren't doing the job, and it wasn't easy, but afterward, their coworkers were the ones who came up and thanked me.

So we fire people when we have to, but only as a last resort. First, we want to try giving them training and support to see if that helps them.

On the other end - we have rewards. What if all workers were eligible for bonuses of 10% to 20% to 30%, not just the SES? What if award nominees could be proposed by anyone, reviewed by peers, and then published once awarded for all to see for transparency's sake? Even without expanding the existing bonus pool, we could increase our flexibility to properly reward the very best.

The fourth pillar of reinvigorating the civil service is training.

We are the most complex organization in the world, because we face the most complex challenges in the world. And yet, outside of DoD, we spend next to nothing on training. It's shameful. Training is always the first thing to get cut from the budget and the last thing to be brought back.

I shudder to think about how much productivity is lost and how much our work suffers while people struggle to teach themselves things that another organization would train them on. Performance management is a great example. In a way, training is the foundation on which the previous three pillars will rest, because we can devise the greatest system in the world, but if we don't train managers to manage in it and we don't train workers to work in it, it will fail.

So how do we invest in our workers to get the most back from them? Training should be both formal and ongoing. It means taking courses at our Federal Executive Institute and at colleges and universities, but it also means instilling a culture in the office of mentoring and nurturing the up-and-coming staffers.

Finally, let me discuss students. We need to clear away the clutter that confuses and discourages student applicants. I hope to build clear and simple pathways for entry and then not only train and promote them - but also ensure that public service make financial sense for them.

That's why it is my hope that government-wide, we can significantly raise the starting salary that everyone with a bachelor's degree qualifies for.

We're also working to relieve the crushing debt many of you have taken on to earn your educations, and we'll have more to say on that soon too. The bottom line is that we must make it easier for the next generation of the best and brightest to serve their nation.

That's my initial thoughts on the four pillars of civil service reform and how we build them.

At the core of this vision are principles that are moral truths. Applicants and employees should be judged on their ability to do the job and nothing else. Work of equal value should get equal reward, no matter who's doing it.

By breathing new life into these truths, we breathe new life into our government, our nation, and the principles of America's Founding. And even as our challenges evolve, the charge to each generation remains constant, so much so that we can find it in the annals of classical history.

When the young of ancient Athens became adults and were inducted to full citizenship, they swore an oath - one that you walk by each day just as I did in 1980.

An oath, to transmit our nation "not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

That is the mission of public service. That is what we challenge you to help us achieve.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

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