- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

In history and legend, the New Frontier of the early 1960s was an exciting time to be working for Uncle Sam. This was the era of “ask not what your country can do for you,” when thousands of young and not so young people flocked to an expanding public service.

So if you miss, or missed out on, the experience of being a fed during the John F. Kennedy years, you may — if the Obama administration delivers — get a chance to see what it was like.

Insiders say that the president, who says he wants to “make government cool again,” is dead serious, to the point where he has told confidantes he wants that to be part of his legacy.

That desire to make people feel good about their government is why he has taken the step of inviting John Berry, the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, to recent Cabinet meetings. Normally those meetings are reserved for Cabinet officers, a handful of aides and someone from an agency or program under discussion.

In the past, some OPM directors never saw the president again after their swearing-in ceremony. Some went years communicating indirectly with the president through White House staff.

OPM is an important agency to federal workers and retirees. But to the average American it is just another obscure agency with the standard three-letter abbreviation. Most Americans probably don’t know, or care, what OPM does. The president, it appears, does know what it does, and he wants it to do more.

In recent years — through the administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — the policy was to reform, shrink, get a better handle on or outsource government activities. All cited statistics and examples (sometimes overblown, sometimes just flat out wrong) to prove their point.

The Carter administration sought “reform” by depicting the government as a place where nobody, no matter how incompetent, ever got fired. The Reagan administration held back on pay raises and perks because it said feds had it pretty good.

The Clinton team said government needed to be reinvented and went to the media with examples of silly, outdated programs and practices. It jump-started outsourcing by eliminating a couple of hundred thousand jobs that were often contracted to the private sector. The Bush administration continued outsourcing efforts as well as the Clinton administration program of holding down federal pay raises.

In an interview last week Mr. Berry, a longtime aid to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said his last job — as director of the National Zoo — was probably the most fun, but that the OPM assignment is his most exciting and challenging.

Unlike most past administrations, Mr. Berry says this one wants to make government “the” place to be. Operations that were outsourced during the Clinton-Bush years will be brought back into government, along with more than 100,000 new feds to push expanding programs from banking and health care to national security.

Unlike most past administrations, the plan (at least so far) is not to knock down the government so it can be rebuilt in a new (and, as always, improved) form.

Mr. Berry said his job at OPM is to make hiring easier and faster, to shorten the already impressive operation to make critical background checks and to improve retirement machinery that, he said, has been broken and under construction “for 28 years.” Each administration has called up the usual suspects in its drive to make government better by recruiting the best and brightest into public service.

The difference this time, Mr. Berry says, is that the government can always use top-notch people — “it already has the best and brightest” career civil servants who have been on the job for years.

Old-timers in government (the current average age is between 47 and 48) often cringe, with good reason, when a new team takes over. They’ve learned that more often than not they are seen as the problem.

Mr. Berry said the president has signed on to a plan to bring labor and management together by having regular meetings — presided over by OPM and other top officials — that bring federal union leaders and both career and political federal executives together for consultation rather than conflict.

He also said that the administration will deal with the tricky issue of government merit pay programs designed to reward top employees and deny pay raises, promotions or job security to those who don’t measure up.

The programs, launched by a Republican-led Congress, look great on paper. But many employees — and most unions — say that in practice they often aren’t administered properly, have damaged morale and, at worst, financed buddy-system ratings and raises in some units of government. He said a panel composed of three outside experts in government will look at the merit pay plans, such as Defense’s National Security Personnel System, to see how, or if, they are working and then take appropriate action.

It’s a tall order and there is lots of feel-good in it. Time will tell if it is implemented, if it works and if it sticks.

Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected]

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