Obama's Choice for OPM Director Faces Daunting Challenges

This was originally published as an exclusive commentary for The Washington Post.

President Obama has named National Zoo Director John Berry to lead the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Berry's new job will make getting giant pandas to reproduce look easy.

As difficult as the task may be, the key to succeeding is quite simple. Berry needs to change OPM from an agency that says, "No, you can't," to one that says, "Yes we can."

OPM's official mission is to ensure the federal government has an effective civilian workforce. That's a pretty daunting proposition. Now, consider that key human resources functions like recruiting, hiring and training are decentralized across the federal government, and you get a sense of the challenges facing an OPM director.

With agencies in charge of their own human capital practices, OPM can only succeed if it is an effective collaborator. Unfortunately, rather than view OPM as a vital partner, too many federal agencies see it as a scolding parent.

In many ways, OPM's unflattering reputation stems from the agency simply doing its job. In addition to offering many HR services, OPM is charged with enforcing federal HR policies. These guidelines are supposed to be a means to build an effective workforce, but, too often, OPM falls into the trap of treating them as the end.

When agencies seek approval to experiment with new ways to attract and retain talent, OPM routinely says no, putting the brakes on innovation rather than trying to help the agency find an alternative way to achieve its goals within the rules. Of course OPM does say yes on occasion, but often agencies must demonstrate failure or a significant problem before they receive special authorities. Granting flexibilities before something is broken seems like the more prudent course.

A 2008 survey of government's top human resources officials confirmed the prevalence of this perception of OPM as an obstacle to change.

Nearly half of respondents said they would like to see OPM focus more on strategy and act as less of an overseer. As one respondent put it, "OPM focuses too much on 'Mother may I?' and not enough on serving as an advisor and consultant to agencies and helping with strategy."

What's notable about these responses is that they were unprompted by any mention of OPM. Chief human capital officers were asked open-ended questions about how to improve the quality of the federal workforce, and revitalizing OPM consistently came up as an answer.

John Berry and the Obama administration need to reorient OPM.

First and foremost, OPM should stop viewing itself as a traffic cop, and serve as the thought leader on the key human capital challenges. A major reason many of the biggest workforce challenges are allowed to fester is that nobody owns them. OPM is the logical candidate to fill this void.

Two areas in need of immediate attention are the multi-sector workforce and federal leadership. Nobody in government is really thinking strategically about the government workforce as a whole, meaning civil servants plus contractors. OPM should focus on what government needs to do, determine who is best suited to do it, and work to update federal human capital policies accordingly.

Leadership is the most important driver of organizational performance, yet independent analyses reveal that the quality of federal leadership at the managerial level is dramatically lacking. As government's primary agency for workforce issues, OPM should lead an effort to drive improvements in this area.

OPM also needs to be more than just a strategic thinker; it should be a strategic partner. OPM should re-introduce itself to federal agencies and declare its intention to work with them to identify and implement best practices for attracting and managing talent.

A good place to start would be trying to fix the broken federal hiring process. OPM should encourage all agencies to adopt a Federal Job Applicant's Bill of Rights, which ensures all candidates will be treated fairly, openly and promptly. It should work to fix the selection process, which often fails to choose the best talent.

OPM also needs to build on its recent efforts to streamline the security clearances. Historically, background checks have bogged down the process. OPM, working with other agencies, has made significant progress speeding things up, but there is more to be done.

Just as the decentralized nature of federal HR practices requires that OPM be an effective collaborator, it also demands that the agency enjoy the backing of the White House. For the OPM director to succeed, he needs buy-in from the leadership of all federal agencies, and that starts with a clear signal that "people" issues are a presidential priority. One way for the White House to demonstrate its commitment would be an increase in OPM's budget and more resources for the HR community across government.

For all OPM's problems, one good thing about heading a smaller agency is that you have more running room. Whereas other department leaders are fighting turf wars, the human capital field is a virtual land grab.

John Berry should seize the opportunities before him to revitalize OPM and reshape federal human capital policy. If he does, when people ask him if OPM advanced its mission of building an effective federal workforce under his leadership, he can offer a simple answer: "Yes, we did."