Feds hail OPM’s John Berry as an ‘advocate’ and ‘champion’

By Katie Howard
Federal News Radio

On John Berry’s final day as director of the Office of Personnel Management, the consensus from federal employees and employee groups he has worked with the past four years is that his shoes will be hard to fill. Those interviewed by Federal News Radio said he has been the utmost advocate for feds in a tough political climate of furlough talk, budget negotiations and a rebounding economy.

In an interview on Your Turn with Mike Causey this week, Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, and William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, discussed what they believe to be the highlights of Berry’s career and the challenges the next administrator will face.

Berry has been a “terrific advocate for federal employees and he’s certainly been very visible and very passionate about it,” Bonosaro said, adding that directing the OPM can be a “thankless position” particularly when it comes to making the call on snow days for federal workers in the D.C. area.

(View our photo slideshow of John Berry during his tenure at OPM. Story continues below.)

“He’s been very accessible. I think he really cares about the workforce. He’s been an effective spokesperson,” she said. “He’s been in what can really be a thankless job, but I think the one thing that has always fascinated me is how smart the administration was to put him there because John is so likeable. He very often has been able to deflect the heat.”

Bonosaro added that the position can also be thankless when it comes to defending the administration and its less popular policies. “It is a tough job and you can’t forget that he does work for the administration,” she said.

Berry’s ‘open door policy’

Dougan seconded Bonosaro’s assessment of Berry as an advocate for federal employees. He said he was most impressed with Berry’s “open door policy.”

“In previous administrations, the doors at OPM were pretty much closed to labor and he opened them up immediately when he stepped in as director,” he said.

In addition, Dougan called Berry a “champion for federal employees” on issues such as extending health care and other federal benefits to lesbian and gay employees, their families as well as domestic partners.

Causey, Bonosaro and Dougan also addressed some specific questions from FederalNewsRadio.com readers about Berry’s term.

One fed asked, “Why under the Berry administration is it that OPM can’t get around to writing the regulations for phased retirement? It’s been over a year since the public law has been enacted that authorized the new benefit.”

“Given all the other priorities that we are dealing with in this nation, in terms of the questions about the budget and the financial situation we’re in, the debt ceiling, I just think it’s taken somewhat of a backseat to some of these pressing issues,” Dougan said.

Bonosaro said this is one of many regulations that has yet to be fully implemented. She pointed to the Flags For The Fallen legislation passed in December 2011, which has also faced implementation delays. The law provides a flag to the family of any federal civilian killed in the line of duty.

Other feds voiced their appreciation for Berry’s service.

“I think he’s one of the best we’ve ever had at the helm of OPM and my experience with the feds dates from the mid-1950s,” said one FederalNewsRadio.com reader. “I can also state from my personal experience that Mr. Berry has been attentive to matters affecting the masses but always had his ear to the ground for matters affecting the individual.”

Advice for the next OPM director

“There have been clear differences between OPM directors,” Bonosaro said, adding that everyone brings their own strengths to the job.

“It really matters whether they are more of a strategic thinker versus a tactful thinker, and I would put John in the former,” Dougan said. “He’s very strategic. He tends to take a more broad view and look at sort of what’s broken across federal government and focus on those areas.”

Who will take the helm at the agency for the long-term is still unclear. However, Elaine Kaplan, the current general counsel at OPM, will fill the role as acting director.

Berry’s future plans are also unclear. The Washington Post reported last month Berry may be in line to be the next Ambassador to Australia.

Bonosaro said the role of the OPM director has changed over the years from one that oversees the civil service, to one more oriented on results and programs such as telework and improving performance management.

“I think he’s been a very great champion for telework across the federal government and has put a lot of energy into developing the telework program, which I think will ultimately end up saving the government a lot of money in terms of being able to save on building space while still continuing to get the mission of the agency done,” Dougan said.

As for some parting words and comments on Berry before his next endeavor, which is still unclear, both Bonosaro and Dougan described him as a “straight shooter.”

“He has done all he can do in terms of being a champion for federal employees. Those are going to be hard shoes to fill,” Dougan said. “And while certainly labor has not always agreed with some of his decisions, he has been willing to sit down and talk with us, to listen to us [and] to take our impute. The open door policy at OPM has been a godsend for us. We have worked closely with John and we’re going to miss him.”

Do you have something to say about John Berry’s term as OPM director? Leave a comment above.

Related Stories:

OPM’s John Berry sends farewell email, Kaplan to serve as acting director

OPM Director John Berry to leave when term expires

Mike Causey: Is there life after Berry?

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