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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

A New Day for the Civil Service

Excellence in Government Conference

July 20, 2009

Thank you. It's an honor to be here today to talk about the State of the Civil Service and the way forward.

I've been on the job as the Chief People Person for the Federal Government for a few months now, and I've worked on Civil Service issues for many years before this. And I have to tell you, I've never been more excited and optimistic about the opportunity for genuine, wholesale, systemic reform in the way we recruit and motivate the Federal workforce.

More than capital, facilities or any equipment, our people, are the most important asset we have, and it's time to recognize that fact and act accordingly.

Today's Civil Service is among the finest in our Nation's history, and it is up to us to share a robust vision for how we prepare ourselves for the challenges of the coming decades. But before we talk about that, it's helpful to trace the journey that led us here and build a new narrative that captures the spirit and sacrifice that characterizes the men and women of our Federal workforce.

Through much of the 19th Century, Government jobs were given out largely on the basis of political party membership, and both parties had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Momentum for change finally built when President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled job seeker in 1881. With what you might call a keen instinct for self-preservation, his successor, Chester Arthur, signed the Pendleton Act in 1883.

This law established the Civil Service Commission which, bolstered by the energetic service of Theodore Roosevelt, among others, dismantled the spoils system and replaced it with one based on merit. Its core idea is that in America you will be judged by how well you do your job - and by nothing else. Gradually, the merit-based system came to encompass nearly the entire Federal civilian workforce.

As the Civil Service became professionalized, it drew people like Eliot Ness and his fellow "untouchables;" Frank Wilson, the Treasury investigator who documented Al Capone's tax evasion; scientists who mastered the atom; Neil Armstrong and the engineers who supported his legendary voyage 40 years ago this very day; and Rachel Carson, who started her career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. The call to serve drew not only heroes like Dwight Eisenhower, but also the defense civilians who serve alongside our warfighters.

Our Federal workforce has adapted continuously as America's needs have changed and Presidents and Congresses have assigned new missions. Thirty years ago, over 22% of our workforce was in blue collar jobs. Now that percentage has dropped by half while the percentage of IT and Health professionals has doubled.

Federal workers helped create the Internet, and now we're using it to make government run more efficiently and save taxpayer money. Dick Gregg is a great example. He was a civil servant for more than 40 years, finishing his career as Commissioner of the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service.

Before he retired in 2006, Dick moved the Treasury toward an all-electronic payment system that handles trillions of dollars in taxes and is saving us hundreds of millions of dollars in transaction costs.

William D. Phillips, a career researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is a Federal worker and a Nobel Prize winner. Dr. Phillips is remarkable not only for his research in the area of quantum computing, but also for giving back to his community. When NIST nominated him as a distinguished civil servant, they noted that he took the time to speak at high schools and a rural community center - not necessarily stops on the physicists' normal lecture circuit.

I should also mention that one of Dr. Phillips' co-awardees for the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics is now our Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu.

Right now, Federal workers are researching cures for cancer, developing solutions to our energy and climate crises, and working to right the ship of our economy.

But despite the work they're doing, perceptions of Federal workers changed for the worse as it became fashionable for politicians of both parties to run against Washington and the boogey man of "the bureaucracy."

For over 30 years, Federal workers and the work we do have been denigrated and disparaged. We've been called "out of touch," "unaccountable," "lazy," "blood-sucking," and worse. The phrase "good enough for government work," has been turned on its head, stolen and made into an epithet - a catchphrase for mediocrity. During World War II, it was the standard for excellence in manufacturing - good enough to protect our servicemen in battle. Good enough to rebuild our allies when the war was over. Good enough to bring mankind to the moon and back safely.

It's time we reclaimed that meaning. It's time the denigration ends.

This isn't merely a matter of pride; it's a matter of necessity. The broadsides of the last 30 years have not only hurt morale, recruitment and, I believe, retention; ultimately, they've inhibited our ability to deliver the best service to the American people.

I argue today that the premise of these attacks was not only misguided - it was completely wrong. The American people were sold a bill of goods. Federal workers are not second class or inferior to workers in the private sector, and we never were.

Government workers have a strong record of delivering for the American people, and we continue to work as hard as anyone else, if not harder.

We also work smarter - while the Federal government's responsibilities have grown, our share of the overall American workforce has dropped - by almost half. In 1970, before both parties began their sustained attacks on the civil service, 4% of working Americans worked for the civil service. Today, that figure is just over 2%.

To spotlight one example of our increased responsibilities: in 1980, just under 50 million people were enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid, and the programs were administered by 4,900 federal workers. Today, the agency has 4,600 workers - 7% fewer, and guess how many people are in Medicare and Medicaid. Almost 81 million. They're serving 64% more enrollees with 7% fewer Federal workers. And during that time, managed care options, the Part D drug benefit, a significant role in the States Children's Health Insurance Program, (SCHIP), and other additional layers of complexity have been added to their responsibilities through new legislation. A disclaimer: there are some state workers and contractors who help; but any way you slice it, the Federal workers at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are working smarter.

Another Fed who's working smarter is Kathy Dillaman. Kathy is the leader of OPM's Investigative Services Division. In 1997, investigative services worked through about 5,200 investigations per year to grant Top Secret and higher level clearances.

Now, in the post-9/11 era, we do 100,000 of these high-level investigations. That's over 19 times as many. We do them more quickly - from 380 days at the height of the post-9/11 backlog to 72 days on average now and we are on track to reaching 90% in 40 days this year! And just as important we're literally twice as efficient - the workload has increased nearly twice as much as the workforce.

The work of HHS and Kathy Dillaman is good enough for government work.

And I'll take Dick Gregg and the Treasury staff over Wall Street any day - thank you very much.

I've worked in government a long time, been confirmed by the Senate for senior posts in two administrations, and spoken to many political appointees of both parties and diverse career backgrounds about their service. And every single one of them, to a person, has praised the quality and dedication of the career professionals who worked alongside them. For those appointed at the height of the attacks against the Civil Service, they always listed it as their greatest surprise - but the conclusion remained the same.

We all need to showcase these professionals to the American people and make the case: Federal employees deserve respect. They protect us. They sacrifice for all of us. They are essential for our country.

These sacrifices come into particularly sharp relief on days such as April 19, 1995, when the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City, August 7, 1998, when two of our embassies were attacked, and September 11, 2001. From 1995 through 2007, 2,085 Federal workers have died on the job - giving their all for their country. "No greater love is more than this: that one lay down their life for another."

In the wildfires of the West, in our embassies and the Peace Corps, enforcing our laws and exploring the final frontier, these brave Americans know the risk their civilian service entails.

They knew risk as they headed to the Pentagon on the morning of September 11th - and they certainly knew the risk when many defense civilians returned to work the next day. Yet they returned, propelled by a sense of duty and a commitment to something larger than themselves.

Just as we owe our men and women who die in uniform more than we can ever repay, we owe these non-combatant workers a debt of honor as well, and I challenge anyone to say their lives are any less dear.

We cannot afford to sit idly by and let them be maligned any longer. We need to defend them when they are attacked and hold whoever does it accountable.

We need Federal employees to face the unprecedented challenges of our time. We need those who are here now, but might be looking at the private sector as they contemplate the costs of college for their kids. We need new workers to replace those who are retiring. For jobs where outsourcing hasn't worked, and in many cases has cost taxpayers more money, we need to recapture the expertise that has been lost.

Each of you has a story of service, like the ones I've told. You can help reclaim the reputation of Federal workers by sharing your story and the stories that inspired you. Blog about it. Put it out there on Twitter 140 characters at a time. Make yourself heard.

When you do, I think you'll find that opinions will start to change. Some people may even connect with your story and be moved to enter Federal service themselves. Either way, we're reclaiming the ground that's been lost over the last 30 years, and really since the Kennedy administration, when respect for public service reached its zenith.

This isn't about big government or small government; it's about good government. We need the best and the brightest, and we need them now.

So where do we stand? What is the current state of the civil service?

We have, by and large, the best workers in the world, but we do not have the systems or policies we need to support them. We need comprehensive reform, from recruitment and hiring to pay and training. And, we must expect the best from every employee and fairly appraise their performance to guarantee to the public that America is getting what she deserves - the best.

Now is the time to tackle these reforms. We are ascending from the dark valley of denigration and rising to a new dawn for public service. More and more Americans are asking what they can do for their country.

The ageless ideal of serving a cause larger than any one of us has been brought back to life by President Obama and the millions of ordinary Americans who swept him into office.

Now we need to do the hard work of building the infrastructure that will enable us to absorb and channel this flood of enthusiasm and meet our lofty goal that:

The Federal Government will be America's model employer for the 21st century.

With hundreds of thousands of Feds projected to retire in the next 10 years, the hiring problems we currently face can only get worse if we fail to act.

Now is the time we must recruit and hire the best; expect the best; respect their successes, and honor their service.

To achieve this, we are going to fix hiring and recruitment so that it is fair, simple and fast, and only based on merit. We are going to improve work-life balance and treat our employees with respect - by enhancing their health and environment and helping them manage their family and loved ones' demands as best we can.

We are going to honor our veterans and increase their employment opportunities in our domestic agencies.

And we're going to develop a performance appraisal system that gives substantial rewards to our very best workers, recognizes the good work of the vast majority of our employees, and disciplines and removes the few bad apples who have been given the chance to improve but have either failed or refused to do so.

Together, these elements form a complete refresh of the Federal government's people policy. We are not developing these policies in secret; I am talking to everyone I can think of who might have ideas on how we can improve - workers and managers, unions and academics, business friends, Members of Congress and agency heads.

The stars are aligned. We have a President in Barack Obama who gets it; who understands the value of service and isn't in the practice of throwing around "bureaucrat" as a slur towards our workers. We have allies in leadership in both the House and Senate and Committee Leaders who are ready to help.

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to ask the big questions, and if we do this right, we'll have a people policy that can last us the rest of the century. So I'm encouraging all of you and all of our partners to think about the big picture.

We'll be doing just that in September-October, when Harvard is hosting a conference for us, chaired by the Dean of the Kennedy School, former Senator Paul Sarbanes, and Laszlo Bock, the head of people programs for Google.

The stars may not align like this again. So we need to have our plans ready this year.

I'd like to close with one more story about a public servant; a story I heard as a child. It's about a man who started as a coal miner in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in the first half of the 20th century, eventually working his way up to Justice of the Peace. He took great pride in being invested with the public trust.

But one part of his job was particularly heart-rending. During the Depression, people in his area who couldn't afford to heat their homes would scour rail beds for lumps of coal that had fallen from passing trains. And when the coal companies caught people doing this, they would haul them into court. And this public servant would dutifully take the coal away and lecture them sternly about the importance of respecting private property… Then, later in the night, he would go to their homes and give the coal back, taking his young daughter, my mother, with him, trudging through the snow to those back doors so that she might learn the true meaning of justice.

The public trust is an awe-inspiring power to do good in the right hands. In the wrong ones, it can be abused to terrible, horrifying ends. Anyone who doubts the need to continue recruiting the best people to exercise that power fundamentally misunderstands the role of government in a free society. America not only deserves the best - she needs the best, if our country and Constitution are to survive.

Let us, as Stan Rogers sang, join all the power of our hands and our hearts and our brains towards this end and guarantee America a new day for our civil service. Let us together, build America's model workforce for the 21st century.

Thank You. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

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