John Berry had some good news for Virginia Tech students in Alexandria recently: the cumbersome, antiquated, and lengthy process of applying for a position in the federal government will be getting easier. 

And he should know. Berry is director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, responsible for recruiting, hiring, and setting benefits policies for 1.9 million federal civilian employees, a post he has held for the last four years.

“We are getting the job description down from 75 to 80 pages to no more than five,” said Berry, while admitting that his personal goal is two pages.  And he has backing from the top. Berry recounts that when he told President Barack Obama about the 75 to 80 page job description, “The president just looked at me and said, ‘John, I don’t even think my job would have an 80 page job description.’” What followed was not only agreement from Obama to reduce the job description, but a presidential order to migrate from the more difficult 'Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities' application system to an easier resume system within the next 1.5 years. 

Berry said that these changes should encourage more people to apply to work in the federal government. With more than 20 years of experience in the federal government, he is a passionate and aggressive advocate for public service and federal workers. His goal: build a workforce of dynamic innovators who put serving the American people at the heart of everything they do.

“Public service is an amazing place. Federal employees make a difference in the lives of Americans every day,” he said.

Berry shared his three keys to a successful career in public policy with more than 60 Ph.D. and master’s of public administration students, faculty, and invited guests gathered in the newly designed meeting space at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in Old Town Alexandria. 

First and foremost, he said, is to “always maintain your integrity. It’s hard; it’s like holding water in your hands. But if anything comes along that can damage your integrity, it is your responsibility to say no. Remember that integrity is your most precious commodity.”

Secondly, he said, is to “be present. Think about every signal you send. Look at people around you; say hello. Create an environment where you are willing to listen and accept criticism. You should want to know what is wrong. Be a listening boss.   

“I never want someone to do something because I tell them what to do, but because I have convinced them that it is the right thing to do,” Berry said.

Persistence is the third essential key to success for policymakers, he said, acknowledging that “Washington, D.C., is not set up to get things done. Less than 300 of 3,000 proposed bills make it into law. Even the Capitol building itself is a labyrinth. The only way to succeed in Washington is through persistence. Persistence often produces miracles when you least expect them.”

Associate Professor Patrick Roberts invited Berry to speak as part of the National Capital Region’s Center for Public Administration and Policy’s Doctoral Mentoring Program, which he is heading up this year.  

“John Berry is the federal government’s chief people person, and he’s the highest ranking federal official I’ve seen visit Virginia Tech in Alexandria. Berry was an inspiration to our students who are seeking careers in the public service,” Roberts said. “He reminded us that we should celebrate bold and innovative civil servants who get the job done.” 

The doctoral mentoring program plays an important role in fostering collegiality and scholarship among the center’s faculty and graduate students. Graduate students are assigned to a small mentoring group led by a faculty member. There are six annual meetings for all members of the mentoring program and additional gatherings are organized among members of the small mentoring groups to create opportunities for discussion and learning beyond the confines of the classroom and the dissertation.

Two other speaking events are scheduled for the fall 2012 semester. A faculty panel will address moving from the qualifying exams to the dissertation and Adam Eckerd, assistant professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy, will present, "Preserving the Publicness of the Nonprofit Sector," on Nov. 1. CPAP-Alexandria will host an event on using social media in government today; it is cosponsored with the City of Alexandria.

Berry's talk at Virginia Tech can be accessed on YouTube.



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