Not long ago, patent pendency–the time between the filing of a patent application and patent allowance–was increasing. Studies of the operations at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office concluded that while more patent applications were being filed, neither the office’s workforce nor its infrastructure was keeping pace with the growth.
Steadier funding and increased focus on hiring and retention in recent years, however, has helped the USPTO increase its workforce–and has made those employees the happiest in the federal government. That should be good news for patent professionals who work with the USPTO and its patent examiners.
In 2013, the USPTO topped the “Best Place to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, which are issued by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The annual report is based on a survey of more than 700,000 civil servants from 371 federal agencies and divisions.
That is a remarkable turnaround from 2007, when the USPTO ranked 172nd. That year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report entitled, “Hiring Efforts Are Not Sufficient to Reduce the Patent Application Backlog.” The report suggested it would require more than the comprehensive reforms of the U.S. patent system to address a growing USPTO backlog of patent applications at the USPTO. The question before the GAO was whether USPTO hiring practices were adequate to establish and maintain a workforce sufficient to meet the expanding backlog.
The USPTO’s patent examiner workforce stood at 5,000 when the agency began its hiring initiative in 2007. That number had increased to 8,344 patent examiners on the job by July 2014, an increase of nearly 67 percent.
Along with new hiring, the USPTO also initiated efforts to reduce attrition, one of the most significant of which addressed a major issue identified by the GAO: stress associated with outdated production goals that had been set in 1976. Since that time, the number of annual patent applications had increased by more than 500 percent. In February 2010, the USPTO changed its system for evaluating patent examiner efficiency and productivity to provide examiners with more time to review patent applications.
More recently, in remarks delivered at a January 2014 meeting of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, USPTO Deputy Director Michelle Lee reported that “employee morale is at an all-time high, our management/labor relationships are strong and healthy, and our managers are seasoned and effective.”
Lee also credited more stable funding for the agency’s additional investments in IT systems, which have enabled it to interconnect its satellite offices and make USPTO resources more easily and widely available to the innovation community. These measures have allowed the USPTO to introduce new education and training offerings for its stakeholders. Lee held out the possibility of eventually using the satellite offices to facilitate future participation in Patent Trial and Appeals Board proceedings, either in-person or via video.
While acknowledging that the leaps had been made prior to her appointment to the USPTO, Lee called the agency’s rise to the top of the “Best Place to Work” rankings “Good News #1.”
It seems to also be good news for inventors and patent applicants. Figures published by the agency indicate that traditional total pendency had declined to 27.5 months by July 2014. There is no easy way to tell whether that is a result of more patent examiners coming to work with a smile… or just more of them on the payroll. In either case, it is the lowest figure in recent memory and an indicator of USPTO efficiency. We can all smile about that.