OPM's Berry: 'We are close to the edge of the cliff'


John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

As we reported yesterday, the members of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations sounded a red alert Wednesday on the state of the federal government’s recruiting and retention efforts. With the ongoing pay freeze, furloughs, sequester budget cuts and threats to cut benefits, union leaders and administration officials alike fear the federal workforce could crack under the pressure. Longtime feds with decades of experience could throw in the towel and retire, they fear, and talented young up-and-comers could conclude that the federal government isn’t a good place to work and take their skills elsewhere.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry capped the discussion with an impassioned — and apparently impromptu — speech, which made it clear he has had it up to here with the constant attacks on federal employees. It was particularly striking because Berry’s public persona is usually so cheerful and optimistic, and it drew applause from the rest of the council. Following are lightly-edited excerpts of Berry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks:

I will in closing make a few points, if you would indulge me. I know that this council, if anything, I’m preaching to the choir.

85 percent of our workforce is outside of Washington. The workforce today is the same size it was when Lyndon Johnson was president, and yet we have 60 million more Americans. Don’t talk to me about efficiency. Only in this town can on one day a discussion be held and the [Government Accountability] Office dragged me over the coals on skill gaps, and the fact that we cannot hire people to fight cybersecurity in this nation, and the president in the State of the Union message making clear that we are facing essentially a pre-9/11 situation with cybersecurity, and we can’t hire people? And yet the next day, have the Congress adopt the third year of a pay freeze. And no one see a connection between those two points.

Only in Washington.

I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff. And all public policy officials, whether they be Republican or Democrat, need to be exercising extreme caution. We cannot recruit and retain a qualified workforce by freezing their pay forever. We cannot do it by changing their retirement plan on an annual basis. We cannot do it by denigrating public service. My father served at Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division. He was one of the lucky few to make it off alive. And he pointed out to me, even though I did not serve in the military, that the oath I took when I joined federal service was the exact same oath he took when he put his life at risk for this nation’s liberty.

Shame on anyone who would hold that oath as something not worthy of respect. And that’s what we need to get back to in America, where we respect service. Where we respect people who will put their lives on the line for their country. Where we respect those who will suffer for their neighbor and focus on making their lives and their quality of lives better. We need to get back to that. And I know that every member of this council shares that vision. And I know the president does as well.

My commitment to you is: we will use this forum to advance that message. Public service matters, and God help the Republic the day that that is no longer a true statement.


About Author


  1. I personally believe it’s way past time that OPM wage an information campaign to better inform Americans about return on investment their tax dollars are going for when it comes to federal employees. Americans can tell you what “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” means, or “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” but what’s out there in regards to an ad campaign on public service? From what I’ve seen … very little. Wouldn’t be in best interest of “Open Government” to provide an information starved public about our federal civil servants and the jobs they’re doing via the taxpayer’s investment into the United States of America? I would think OPM would be well justified to provide that information to the public via an Ad Council campaign. If its justified to reduce forest fires, spread awareness of pollution, or to increase recruiting numbers … then it should be justified to increase the awareness of what Uncle Sam’s federal workforce.

    I believe an Ad Council campaign could increase that awareness, which today is sorely lacking in the public and is a variable in why the public is disconnected with what the sequester means and why cutting a federal employees’ pay is met with a shoulder shrug from most Americans unless that Fed is an uniformed member of the Armed Forces.

  2. Cynthia Jones on

    Thank you very much Mr John Berry for your words. I too share your passion enstilled by your father. It is words such as yours which overshadow the nay sayers and keep me motivated in doing the very best every day in my position within FAA. Since this was preceeded by active duty USAF, civil service USAF, many years as contract consultant before returning to Government Service, I have seen a lot of change and will see much more before my service is over.

  3. Best speech by a “box top’ I have ever seen! Now Mr. Berry, when will we see the “phased retirement” regulations ‘fast tracked’ and promsed (by you) by the end of February 2013? I can retire at any time (as can, and will, half my office), but I would stay if I could slowly fade (phase) away over the next few years.

  4. Berry ran the National Zoo before OPM. That helped him transition to his present responsibilities. Zoos should be abolished except in instances where propagation of troubled species in danger of extinction is necessary. Curiously, Berry is advocating for large segments of the civilian civil service which is in trouble because it’s a disgrace and a waste and should become extinct.

Leave A Reply