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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

National Federation of Federal Employees

Portland, OR

October 2, 2012

As prepared for delivery.

Good morning, and thank you all for having me!

I want to thank all of you for the work you do - not only your work on behalf of Federal workers but also all your work on behalf of Americans. This year I've been in California and Colorado and Nevada, and I can tell you, there are grateful citizens in each of those states who still have homes and other property because Federal firefighters were there to protect them. So thank you.

I'm proud to say that this year, at the President's direction, and for the first time ever, Federal firefighters have the immediate option to enroll in FEHB coverage.

We heard from you, and we heard from Americans across the country that this was an important issue. We were glad to work with you, and with the Department of the Interior and the USDA to come to a good solution. Both Secretary Salazar and Secretary Vilsack committed to make it work even though it was an unplanned extra cost, and I want to thank them for stepping up. It was the right thing to do.

A second important change occurred over the summer - Congress authorized OPM to set up a Phased Retirement program. Before this legal change, retirement required an all-or-nothing transition. You're working full-time one day, and the next, you are not. Even if you wanted to keep working part time to share your expertise and experience and contribute to institutional memory, you could not. We never see you again, and any skills or expertise you had after twenty, thirty, forty years on the job - poof, it's gone with you.

Phased retirement will provide another option. We're still sorting out the details, but the basic idea is this: You'd be able to work part time, and mentor newer workers. For agencies, it's a way to retain important knowledge. For prospective retirees, it's a better balance between continued public service and more leisure time. We think it will be an attractive option to many of our most seasoned employees, and are working hard to put this option in place as soon as possible. You'll have a chance to hear and be heard about it more as we develop the regulations.

Since I've mentioned retirement, let me also give you an update on that topic more broadly. At the start of this year, we faced a record-high backlog of retirement applications -along with the knowledge that the pace of retirements could increase at any moment. We said: we have to do better. And we have.

We've tackled the challenge from several directions, working with agencies to make sure that all the paperwork for these cases arrives together and on time, and working with efficiency experts from a Navy Six Sigma team. Working with our union locals, and with tremendous effort from employees both new and old, we've already cut that backlog by a third - which puts us ahead of our schedule. If we stay on schedule and continue to meet or beat our goals, we'll process 90% of all cases within 60 days by July of 2013.

One big reason we were able to make that turnaround at OPM is the same reason we were able to move so quickly on FEHB over the summer: We'd already built up relationships between management and our unions through our labor-management forums.

We'd already worked together. We knew each other. And we knew we'd see each other again at the next forum.

These forums were revitalized by President Obama in 2009. Now, I know that at the Forest Service some of the forums that were called partnership in the Clinton years never stopped meeting, and I know in some places these forums still have a long way to go. It's all about relationships and trust. Starting that collaborative relationship isn't easy, and sometimes you'll have to make the case to skeptical managers.

So let me lay out the case as I see it.

Fundamentally, it's as simple as this: We get better government when we talk to each other.

For one thing, negotiations start closer to a deal, because managers and unions have a chance to discuss important points in advance. For example, at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they're moving about 1400 workers and managers to a new building this fall. Thanks to their ongoing relationship through their labor-management forum, they were able to involve workers in the design process. Important points for employees were included in the designs right from the get-go - things like access to natural light, noise levels, and workstation layouts.

These are factors that deeply affect both productivity and morale, and we all know it. But often these concerns aren't raised until floorplans get shown to workers - so the result is either a workplace that's tough to endure, or an expensive revision to plans already under construction. By engaging early, the NRC avoided both heartache and expense, and they're getting a result everyone is excited about.

Labor-management forums also save money - an argument that I can tell you, a lot of us managers are thinking about these days.

Last month at the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, I heard about a project at the Naval Sea Systems Command, NAVSEA. These are the folks who build, buy and maintain the Navy's ships and submarines and their combat systems. NAVSEA leadership asked their unions and workers, through their labor-management forum, to put forward ideas to save an hour of time out of each workday. Great ideas resulted.

Workers quickly pointed out the most useless part of their day: waiting in line to get the tools and parts they needed for their projects.

And they came up with a solution - a kit, prepared in advance and handed to you on arrival. In the kit, you get the tools you need and the exact number of nuts and bolts and parts that you need for your project that day. They're expecting to save an hour a day for about 8,000 mechanics and engineers across four shipyards - which translates into enormous savings. It's also helped reduce overtime hours - which the younger generation of employees appreciate because they prefer having time off to spend with their families.

And keep in mind, that's just one idea. NAVSEA also replaced 16 analog pressure gauges with 3 digital ones, saving on inventory. They've built training mockups so new workers can learn how to fix submarines before they have to work on real ones. And all of it is leading to better results and saved money.

I know very personally that many of the best ideas for improving our retirement processing came from the workers doing the work. They pointed out that they could shift their focus further onto closing case by changing how administrative duties were handled. They pointed out that incomplete case files caused the biggest delays in finishing a case. Our workers knew it, management acted on it, and now everyone is better off - including our retirees.

So let me just recap: when we work together, we get happier, more engaged workers, saved time, saved money, and a whole new stream of good ideas coming from the bottom up. Sounds like a good deal to me.

If you see reluctance from your local managers about engaging through labor-management forums, talk to them about it. And if you still see reluctance, talk to me about it.

We're all in this together - not just as workers and managers, but as Americans.

Tune into the news or talk radio, and you might not hear about it, but every day Federal workers get up in the morning, and go to work to make American's lives better. You make sure other countries trade fairly with us. You make sure our water's clean, our food is safe, and our borders are protected. And when duty calls, you put your lives on the line - some of you not only run toward wildfires, you parachute into them.

Our country runs not only on our freedoms and on our ability to cast a ballot, it runs on citizenship. On responsibility and integrity and a sense of service to others. Ordinary people stand up and say "I'll make sure these bridges are built strong and safe. I'll make sure our farmers are ok if there's a drought. I'll track down criminals and terrorists that mean to harm our citizens." Ordinary people come together to make America extra-ordinary. That's the value of public service.

About two weeks ago, I had the privilege to represent the civil service at a memorial for a GS 16 who was the first human to set foot on another world, Neil Armstrong. This was a man whose name will rate with the likes of Magellan, Einstein, and the Wright brothers - people who opened new worlds of possibility to humanity.

He launched a Golden Age for our species, which has seen the decoding of the human genome, the invention of the internet, the near eradication of smallpox and polio, and food production for a world population that has nearly doubled since his small step.

Yet Armstrong never forgot - and never failed to emphasize - that each of these accomplishments were anchored by men and women who stepped forward from families and farms, cities and towns, and took the solemn oath to protect and defend our Constitution and our precious liberties.

So when you look up at the moon tonight, think about it. The work of dedicated people, cooperating and collaborating on behalf of our nation, put human footprints up there on that shining surface.

Not every goal is so lofty or so grand. But when we work together, there is no human endeavor that we cannot achieve.

God Bless you for all you have done. God Bless you for all you will do. And God Bless the United States of America.

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