Click here to skip navigation
An official website of the United States Government.

Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

Reforming the Federal Hiring Process and Promoting Public Service to America's Youth

The Brookings Institution

September 28, 2011

Thank you, Dr. Gallston, for the introduction. Thanks to the Brookings Institution for the invitation, and to all of you for attending today. I see Max Stier from the Partnership for Public Service. They are great at making the case for serving in government, and lifting up the amazing work our people do. I'll talk about some innovators today, and if you want to see more, just check out the Sammies nominees and winners. The Service to America medals are a wonderful homage to innovative Federal workers. Thank you, Max.

There was allegedly an ancient Chinese blessing and curse: "May you live in interesting times." Times are particularly interesting in Federal HR, and I'm sure in your shops as well, as we all deal with severe budget constraints and negative views toward public workers. I'm an optimist, though, and I view living in these times as a privilege.

Taking this job, I knew that Federal HR was at a tipping point… that it was a time for big ideas, a time to re-imagine all aspects of Federal people policy across the entire enterprise, and the full career arc - from outreach and recruitment to retirement.

This was necessary because the workforce, and the world around it, have changed. The modern Federal Service dates to the Pendleton Act of 1883, and the last major overhaul was more than three decades ago, under Scotty Campbell.

Over that time, we have gone from a workforce of mostly clerks and blue collar workers to a workforce built around people like analysts, IT professionals, doctors and highly trained law enforcement agents.

Modern Federal workers face complex new challenges, and it was time for our personnel systems to catch up. In government, where our work assignments can change with each session of Congress, it's important to have smart, adaptable people; people who we can develop into leaders; people who are ready, willing and eager to take on the next challenge, whatever it may be.

That's why our first strategic goal at OPM is three simple words: Hire the Best. And that's the part of the career arc I'm going to focus on today.

Let me give you one example that illustrates the kind of people we need: The Affordable Care Act, President Obama's health insurance reform law, directed us to set up a program to cover Americans who could not get insurance on the open market due to pre-existing conditions. And we had to do this for 23 states and the District of Columbia within 60 days. No pressure! The law gave us a lot of latitude to specify the requirements and negotiate with the insurance companies. In other words, it gave us a mandate to innovate.

This type of challenge calls for the best and brightest; for a highly educated, highly skilled, and highly motivated workforce. It takes contract specialists, lawyers, accountants, actuaries, and health care policy experts.

One more example: the great folks on our Health Insurance team just brought us another success earlier this week.

For the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, which insures over eight million Americans, we announced a very low health care premium increase - our most popular plan only raised rates 1.6%. And overall, our 2012 premiums will rise by an average of 3.8% - less than is predicted for similar plans.

Today's U.S. Federal workers are heirs to the public servants - both civilian and military - who brought the world atomic energy, traveled to the Moon and back, decoded the human genome, and created the Internet.

To keep doing great things, to innovate for the future, we need to build the model workforce and become the model employer of the 21st century. To be clear, we have great employees now. But many of them are eligible to retire. New missions demand new skills. We need the next cadre of great workers, and pipelines to continually draw great people.

That's why President Obama has launched several initiatives aimed at recruitment and hiring. His Veterans Employment Initiative was first out of the gate. For me, "VET" means "valued, experienced, and trained."

We've made a huge investment in them - in fields like medicine, engineering, and information technology, to name a few. It behooves us to keep their talents in government - and honoring our veterans is the right thing to do.

So we've built an infrastructure of veterans offices in each agency and set aggressive goals. We're already getting results. In fiscal 2010, we hired over 72,000 vets into Federal service - roughly 2,000 more than fiscal 2009. We hired roughly 2,700 more disabled veterans.

And in the first half of fiscal 2011, over 33 percent of Federal hires were Veterans, compared to just over 30 percent for the same period last year.

In May of last year, President Obama launched an initiative to improve our hiring process. The goals of hiring reform are simple: reach the best candidates, and make our jobs easy to apply for, but hard to get.

Now first off, the hiring process took too long, and we were losing some great candidates. Now, it's 15 percent shorter on average. It's still not as short as we'd like, but we're making progress.

Our job announcements were sometimes 35 pages or longer. Now, almost 70% are five pages or fewer, and they're easier to read. We've also gotten rid of long, duplicative essay questions. They didn't really help identify talent, and the hassle discouraged good people from applying. Now we're in the world of the résumé.

Lastly, we're communicating better with applicants throughout the hiring process. It used to feel like applications went into a black hole - now, we're telling people if they've made the initial cut, and giving them other updates throughout the process.

Together, these reforms help us compete with Fortune 500 companies for the same talented people.

We've developed state of the art assessment tools that let us see how prospective employees would actually perform in situations they're likely to encounter on the job. And we've created an online community of practice for our recruiters across government - Any Federal worker can sign up, not just HR people. It has information and guidance, and also discussion forums and blogs so people can share and build on recruitment ideas collaboratively. I encourage you to check it out!

We're working to develop our HR professionals and their skill sets through HR University, an innovative online learning center developed by the CHCO Council.

We've made a big impact already, but we are by no means finished. We are now in the continuous and sustained improvement phase of this initiative. We're monitoring agency performance, spreading the word about practices that are working, continuing to create a collaborative environment among agencies, and analyzing the data to target agencies that need help.

Hiring more Americans with disabilities is another essential element of "Hire the Best." Disability makes many of us stronger by making other challenges smaller in comparison. Two of America's greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had disabilities that were building blocks of their character. We all know that Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound. And Lincoln struggled with depression.

That's why President Obama established an ambitious goal: the Federal government will hire 100,000 people with disabilities within five years. In my agency, I've set the goal that people with severe disabilities will make up 3% of our new hires.

The next group we're looking to recruit is students. They have the latest skills and the freshest perspectives, but our hiring procedures too often value work experience above all else, so it's tough for them to get in the door.

To fix that, President Obama launched our Student Pathways Initiative. The Initiative creates three clean paths to Federal employment.

First, internships. This was a thicket of programs with acronyms that nobody understood. Now, for continuing students, we have one clear path. Second, the recent grads program: for those nearing graduation, or who finished school within the last two years, we have a way in despite a lack of work experience, with extra time to finish school if you pause for military service. Third, for those finishing grad school, we're revitalizing the Presidential Management Fellowship program. We brought back interviews, and we've expanded the applicant pool to make it even more selective.

The regulations for the Pathways Initiative are open for comment until October 4th, so if you have thoughts on them, I encourage you to share them with us at

The next piece of the puzzle is diversity and inclusion. One of the most important drivers of innovation is having people with different perspectives and different backgrounds, who will approach problems from different angles. Last month, President Obama signed an Executive Order "Establishing a Coordinated Government-Wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce."

This is an area where the Federal government has a special opportunity to lead by example. We're the nation's largest employer, and we have the broadest reach, in terms of both geography AND mission. We prepare for and respond to disasters, we secure the borders, we serve every part of our nation. And we will only succeed in our critical missions with a workforce that hails from, represents, and is attuned to the needs of every American community.

Inclusion is just as important. We need to get the most out of every Federal worker, and that means making each of them feel included in their workplace and their agency's mission. It doesn't help anyone to hire people because they're different, and then marginalize them because they're not the same. We want every employee to feel connected to their organization and every employee to have the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential.

Hiring people from every community and all walks of life brings us a rich array of backgrounds and perspectives. That variety of viewpoints and ideas makes us stronger and more innovative, but only if we encourage everyone to speak up; to share the unique aspects of their experience. That's inclusion.

And we only get the full benefit of this initiative if it extends throughout our ranks - in the field, at headquarters, and in our senior executive corps.

Per President Obama's Executive Order, we'll be publishing a diversity and inclusion strategic plan soon, and I hope you'll give us your thoughts.

These initiatives - taken together - are the foundation on which we will build the Federal workforce of the next few decades. And they are complementary, like a Venn diagram. A student can be a Veteran and a member of a minority group and have a disability. Now, that student has many paths to Federal service.

When people aren't working; when they're disengaged; when pools of talent are underutilized, we're not just doing them a disservice. We're doing ourselves, as employers, a disservice. We're missing out on some great people. And with tight budgets, we can't afford to do that. We don't have a position to waste.

Let me close with a thought about the historical peak at which we live. Recorded human history is only 6,000 years. And that trajectory is not an ever-rising line; the troughs are much longer and deeper than the peaks. It is not written in stone that our civilization will always endure. The Age of Pericles and the Age of Augustus were less than a lifetime each. Yet their accomplishments shined so brightly, they served as wellsprings for the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason more than a thousand years later.

We are at a peak right now. The Moon shot and the other accomplishments I mentioned before will, I believe, shine forward for centuries and even millennia to come. Just think - the smartphone in your pocket gives you access to more information than existed in the famed ancient library of Alexandria. If Gutenberg's printing press launched the Age of Reason, then what will the Internet bequeath? We're just beginning that era.

Despite the difficulties of recent years, our modern civilization is a lighthouse of culture, learning and discovery. Public servants have created much of that bequest - not just to our people, but to the world.

What will we - what will you - do next? Solve the energy challenges that plague our world? Find new ways to educate young people who feel disconnected from our societies? Defeat shadowy global terror networks? Rebuild infrastructure so that it moves people, goods and information anywhere they need to go quickly, cleanly and safely?

Building that lighthouse is our challenge as public servants. The ancient Athenians said it best. To borrow from the oath of citizenship that a young Athenian took upon becoming an adult, "I will strive to leave my nation and world not only not less, but better, more beautiful, and more abundant that it was given to me."

Thank you. Thank you for the work you have done, and the work you will do. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Back to Top

Control Panel