For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. This week, we spoke with Melvin Brown II (he/him), the Deputy Chief Information Officer for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
What called you to a career in public service, especially one in the federal government?
In August 1984, I joined the United States Marine Corps, and it was there that I learned what it means to serve our country. It was that experience and spirit that led me to continue my journey of public service in the federal government. In my humble opinion, the true mission of public service is to help those who cannot help themselves and to represent those who don’t have a voice. When you can take a step back and see how a policy, process, or technology that you developed helped change the life of someone for the better, all the rough days and nights are suddenly worthwhile.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re tackling in your current role?
Today, one of my biggest challenges is related to our aging workforce and the limited pipeline of early career talent we have to replace them. The Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) has the highest percentage of retirement-eligible employees within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), at 27.6%. The average age of OCIO employees and managers is 52. Our demographic data shows that Baby Boomers represent 32% of our workforce, while Generation X are 45%, Millennials are 20.8%, and we have four employees that represent the Generation Z population. Therefore, it is imperative that we build an organizational structure that not only recognizes the need to infuse our talent pipeline with early career talent, but also creates a path forward to hire this new talent.
When you can take a step back and see how a policy, process, or technology that you developed helped change the life of someone for the better, all the rough days and nights are suddenly worthwhile.
How is the Office of Personnel Management working to drive diversity across the federal government?
Like many organizations in the public and private sectors, we have challenges in recruiting candidates with modern technical skills, particularly related to Cloud. For this reason, I developed and led our strategy for recruiting interns with these skills through our Pathways program, an initiative to recruit America’s students and recent graduates into careers in federal public service. We had more than 200 candidates express interest in the program. After a lot of interviewing, we hired 18 interns from across the U.S., not just from the Washington, D.C. area. Through our recently deployed hybrid work capabilities, OCIO can now recruit from across the U.S., giving OCIO a much broader and diverse pool of talent from which to recruit. I’m proud to report that 16 of these interns have committed to staying with OCIO. In the end, this was our most significant workforce achievement in FY 2022.
What’s your favorite piece of advice to offer someone just starting out in a career in public service?
I like to tell people that it’s always a good idea to take the stairs to the top of their career rather than the elevator. Too many people want to rush to the top only to have many sleepless nights and in some cases, end up leaving, because they didn’t have all the experiences they needed to maintain their position. When you take the stairs, you build the muscles to overcome obstacles, deal with conflict, think critically and strategically, and be politically savvy in decision making. It’s impossible to develop these muscles when you take the elevator. I would also add: don’t put a ceiling on how high you can go and never let anyone else put a ceiling on you. What may be hard for one person, may come easy for another. Don’t limit yourself by someone else’s ability—stretch yourself to become all that you were created to be!
What values are most important to you as an organizational leader? How do those show up in your day-to-day work?
Proverbs 22:29 (from the King James Version of the Bible) “Seest thou a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before obscure men.” This proverb commends skilled craftsmanship as a way to gain favor with high-ranking officials. Seek to do good work for the glory of God, but do not be surprised if that skill and work ethic leads to earthly rewards—not guaranteed, but likely. I pride myself on doing the best job that I can in whatever position I hold. I have learned that the fastest way to a promotion is to do a great job in the position that you are in. I have committed to being a lifelong learner of my craft and myself. My goal in life is to close the gap between who I am and who can I become!