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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Justin Johnson

ASPA Conference 2012

Las Vegas, NV

March 3, 2012

As delivered

Thank you, J. Paul [Blake, American Water Works Association board member] for that introduction.

I also want to thank Steve Condrey and Rex Facer and all the other ASPA members like Paul Posner and Jared Llorens for being so helpful in the Federal Salary Council's work and for serving as a sounding board for us on other projects.

I've gotten to know Steve and Rex during the last few years, and they've gotten to know our stellar career team. Just as many of you rely on Steve and Rex for wisdom and guidance, I have relied on Jerry Mikowicz, Mark Allen, Allan Hearne and Bryce Baker for expertise and insight on the difficult issues of Federal pay. And they are just one of the teams of career administrators that have made my time at OPM a pleasure.

Thanks to Erik Bergrud and all the organizers of this conference. It sounds like you have a wonderful program, and I'm happy to be here to bring greetings from OPM and Director Berry. Obviously I'm not Director Berry, and for any of you who have heard him speak, you know he is both sincere and polished. I promise to be sincere.

We live in an interesting era. For years, we've seen public servants used as political footballs - by both parties. Yet we've also seen the deep need for the services we provide. We've seen safety nets strained by recession. We've seen wildfires sweep across vast areas, and blizzards dump massive snowfall in our cities. Just yesterday we saw horrific tornadoes ravage the heartland. We've seen new diseases emerge, and old infrastructure start to wear out.

And we've seen public servants across our country rise to meet the needs and challenges of our time at every level, from local to national.

I believe we have an opportunity to talk to the rising generation about public service. We have an opportunity, as President Obama put it, to "make government cool again."

One of the unexpected joys of my job at OPM has been the opportunity to talk to the upcoming generation via the Presidential Management Fellows program and an advisory committee I'm involved with that is looking to create a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. I believe our young people are just as eager to serve their communities and their nation as the generation inspired by Kennedy.

These are the bright, inspired minds that we need to engage in public service.

I fully expected that I'd hear questions like, "Well, how much does that pay?" Make no mistake, it's still a question young people ask. But it's not the first one. Instead, today's college students and recent grads are asking, "What can I do to help? Where can I have the most impact? What will my work be like?"

We've seen headlines that say less than 3% of college students want to join government. But make no mistake, young people want to serve. Behind that headline, in the same study, a third of the current class is going to graduate school, a third to the private sector, and the remainder are teaching, joining non-profits, joining government, or pursuing some personal goal. They want to serve. We're starting in a good place, with an eager generation.

Two years ago at this conference, Director Berry spoke about the possibility for a transformational moment in public service.

He spoke about the practical need for the Federal government to reform the systems that let us recruit and hire the talented Americans we need; pay, appraise and train them; manage and retain them.

I'm proud to say we've made excellent progress since 2010 in addressing these practical challenges in the Federal government.

When Director Berry spoke in 2010, we'd just gotten our Veterans Employment offices up and running at all the major agencies, as a part of the President's Veterans Hiring Initiative. Those offices, and the sustained attention of partners across government have helped us make great strides in employing our nation's Veterans. In 2009, 24% of new hires were Veterans. We've moved that percentage up to 28.5% in 2011.

Those numbers are impressive, but even more important is the quality of the career matches we are making because of the new process we've put in place. Rather than provide our Veterans their preference points and wish them good luck in applying for any vacancy, we have established agency points of contact that look for actual jobs that would be good fits for actual veterans.

These are highly-disciplined, highly-trained, and skilled individuals, Valued, Experienced and Trained. I encourage everyone here, from any level of government or non-profit or the private sector, to consider hiring a Veteran the next time you're seeking a new employee or a new colleague.

Next up, we looked at how to reform our hiring process. Getting a Federal job used to be kind of like solving a really, really hard math problem. It was confusing and frustrating. Some of the job descriptions and applications were incredibly long - over 70 pages. By the end, you'd want to quit and pass out. And then you'd have to wait six months to see if you got the right answer - and sometimes you never heard anything back at all.

Under President Obama's direction, with his memorandum on hiring reform, we tackled this issue, and with your help, we've made the equation simpler. We've cut down hiring time, improved our electronic applications, streamlined the process to a resume-based system, shortened job announcements, and eliminated Knowledge Skills and Abilities essays as the initial applicant screen.

Today, 94% of job announcements use category rating, 69% are shorter than 5 pages, and 90% require only a cover letter and resume. Director Berry likes to say that moving the government from KSA island to the process used by the rest of the world may not sound like a major achievement, but changing culture in any large organization is difficult. We're confident that common sense has prevailed and we won't be going back.

Hiring reform helped address many of the practical issues we faced, but we found that many students and recent graduates had a tough time applying successfully to Federal jobs. Because they were students, they had the latest skills and training, but no job experience.

So again at President Obama's direction, we completely overhauled our internship programs. We sought input from the public, including ASPA, as well as colleges and students around the country. I'm pleased to say that the final regulations are nearly ready, on schedule to be in place by the end of the academic year. Thanks to these reforms, students and recent grads will have three clear pathways into the Federal government.

Current students will apply to internships. Recent graduates will apply to the recent graduates program. And high-achieving graduate students will apply to the revitalized Presidential Management Fellows program. Each of these programs opens the possibility that if you do your work well, and complete your program successfully, you can be converted into a full-time Federal employee.

We know from experience that if we hire a new person, give them a couple weeks of training, and expect them to just keep working, they're going to get frustrated. Maybe they're a Veteran adjusting to civilian culture. Maybe they're a person with a disability, and the agency culture isn't as welcoming as it might be. Maybe they just aren't sure where to go with their questions.

At OPM, we've implemented a new mentoring program, connecting new employees with mentors who have worked within their agencies for a long time. Mentors are a great way to help employees overcome problems they encounter once training is over. And only a mentor will give you the hard advice you sometimes need to hear - like "Justin, you probably should've put a tie in your carry on just in case the airline loses your luggage."

I've been fortunate to have mentors throughout my career, and now that I'm a mentor as much as a mentee, I'm finding the experience is just as rewarding. I hope other agencies will follow our lead in connecting newer employees to this source of wisdom.

Now, I've mostly spoken so far about the things we can do to bring in new public servants - the pieces we need to assure a steady flow of talent into service. And that's important.

But the most important piece of any agency, local or Federal, is our mission.

Make no mistake. The work we do matters to the American people. Americans count on us to keep the halls of justice open and fair. To keep their food safe. To keep bridges standing and planes flying. I hear sometimes those planes even arrive on time.

A recent study, released in January by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, shows that even as opinions of Federal workers in general have grown increasingly negative, Americans who interact with a particular agency have a better opinion of that agency afterward.

Anecdotally, I think we've all seen this. Ask people about a government worker, and they'll have some negative things to say. But ask about park rangers - we love park rangers! They're so helpful, so knowledgeable! Ask about NASA scientists - they're so cool! They keep finding new planets!

Public servants are lawyers, doctors, economists, and more. They're you. You devote your lives to making your communities and your nation great. You do your jobs as public administrators, and do them well, because your integrity and your pride and your mission demand it.

Let me close with a story Director Berry likes to tell. When his term and the war was over, President Grant traveled through Europe where he was among the popular celebrities of the day. Huge crowds poured into the streets in Germany to hear him speak.

On one of these occasions, an enthusiastic introducer praised Grant, saying that without this man, the United States would cease to exist. Grant set aside his speech, and berated his introducer for this implication. In his off-the-cuff remarks, he captured the essence of the American spirit.

"If I had never held command, if I had fallen, if all our generals had fallen, there were ten thousand behind us who would have...followed the contest to the end and never surrender the Union. So long as our young... (and not so young)... are animated by this spirit, there will be no fear for the Union."

You are that 10,000. You teach and mentor that 10,000. You lead that 10,000. You are the ones who carry our nation forward, and pass it on to our children and their children.

Thank you, God Bless, you God Bless the United States of America.

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