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The Public Manager Magazine Article

OPM Looks to the Future

Beth Cobert, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, stepped into her new role during a time of turmoil for the agency. The Public Manager spoke with her about the importance of data-driven management, training, and cybersecurity vulnerabilities in government.

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Tue Nov 10 2015

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Beth Cobert, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), stepped into her new role during a time of turmoil for the agency. The Public Manager spoke with her about the importance of data-driven management, training, and cybersecurity vulnerabilities in government. 

There are several systemic challenges facing the federal government regarding human capital. These challenges existed before you took the reins at the Office of Personnel Management, and they will most likely continue to be hurdles after you leave. What do you see as the agency’s biggest issues, and what are your priorities for addressing them during your time at OPM? 

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The first challenge on my plate is addressing what's happened with the cybersecurity intrusions at OPM. We’re making sure the people whose data was stolen get the high-quality services they need, and we’re committed to restoring the trust and confidence in OPM's systems. We’ve pulled together a massive interagency team that is working incredibly hard to support OPM in understanding what happened, why it happened, and what needs to be done to address that challenge. 

OPM is not the only institution in the federal government—or across the U.S. economy—that's faced cyber threats this year. What we've all learned is that it really does take everyone to respond. We've had the best experts we can get from inside and outside the government helping us, and we are confident that we are on our way. We’re also equally confident that we've got a lot more work to do. So, that is job one. 

At the same time, the core mission of OPM is to bring great talent into government. That means making sure that talent can actually deliver on the commitments they have to the mission. The  priorities for OPM are engaging the talent we have, getting them what they need to do their jobs well, recruiting great talent into government, and bringing in diverse talent so we have what we need to solve 21st century problems. There is no shortage of things to do. 

Restoring trust and confidence in OPM as a central management agency is so important. Not just from a data protection standpoint, but given your institutional role as well. How have you started to address that challenge? 

As we've been tackling the challenges here, I've been reinforcing the need to focus on cybersecurity. But we cannot let that overwhelm the other work we're doing. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) is one example. 

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OPM has made a tremendous effort to transform the FEVS from just a survey to a real management tool. The ability to get this management tool into people's hands is important—not just to get agency leadership to use it as a tool to understand their workforce, but so that we can understand, across government, what the workforce needs. I think that continuing to improve tools like the FEVS is a big part of restoring trust. 

If you were in a room full of federal managers talking about the FEVS, are there one or two things that you think would really make the most immediate difference for them? 

The first thing that can make a big difference to a federal manager is actually going to unlocktalent.gov and reviewing their data. Each manager will find a different answer to the question: “What's the most important issue for my agency?” When you look at agencies that have seen improvement in their performance, it's because they actually looked at their particular issues. 

So the key to using the FEVS most effectively is for a manager or a management team to demonstrate that they care enough about the results to actually drill down and identify those things that really make a difference to their workforce—and then do something about it? 

Yes, and I think it's also looking at the results and using them as a starting point for understanding what your workforce needs. What's the mix of talent in your workforce? Is your talent diverse? Has there been turnover? Has there not been turnover? All of these things matter. 

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The survey is a great tool, but it does not have all the answers. Agency leaders need to also hold listening sessions with their employees, put together workgroups and tactical action plans, and most importantly, follow up on the data. It starts with leaders saying, “This matters to me. I'm going to understand it, and then I'm going to do something about it.” 

Sometimes what we need to do is easy, sometimes it's hard. Sometimes we get results in a year, sometimes it's going to take a few years to get things done. Federal agencies need to realize that even though we’re on a journey and not seeing results right away, it doesn't mean we stop pursuing them. 

What do you see as the major differences in terms of good workforce management between the private and the public sectors? And, what are some of the biggest things that government can look to the private sector to emulate? 

The same principles for managing and leading people apply to both environments: You have to get people committed to what they're trying to accomplish. The thing that is most different in my mind, though, is the unpredictability of budgets \[in the public sector\]. We are asking people to think long-term and be forward leaning when they do not know how much money they're going to have in the next year. 

For example, we're planning for fiscal year 2017 without knowing what resources we have in 2016 and what results we're going to generate in 2016, and we're also closing out 2015 budgets. We’re managing three budgets at once with a high degree of uncertainty. That is a very complicated environment. This can make it sometimes harder \[than in the private sector\] to be nimble and responsive. That, to me, is the biggest difference. It's a very different cycle that can create a myriad of challenges. It's hard to be forward leaning and plan if you don't know what's happening. 

There's been a lot of attention paid to the fact that General Electric and a number of other private sector companies are pulling back from the practice of relying on the annual multilevel performance appraisal as a mainstay. Instead, they're emphasizing ongoing feedback and a performance matrix. Will the federal government follow suit? 

I think we’ve got to go back to the fundamental principle here. That is, “How do we help people develop and deliver the best they can?” If you only have a development conversation with somebody once during the year, it is highly likely that you will not enable them to maximize their personal development. 

To me, this is a question about how you think about the arc of feedback. How do you have conversations? For instance, if you've just had a meeting with a group of folks, do you give them feedback? What went well? What didn't go well? What do you collectively as a team think went well and didn't go well? That's the way to help people improve and develop. 

So, performance appraisals are a piece of that, but any institution that believes that it's all going to come out in one annual write-up is not going to get the results they want. I think that's true everywhere. 

Historically, many federal agencies have reduced funding for employee training and development in the face of budget cuts. What advice do you have for agencies in this regard, and what advice do you have for federal managers regarding their own professional development, given these challenges? 

I believe that federal agencies need to understand what it takes to have employees who can deliver over time in a changing, challenging environment. People need training and development experiences to help them do that. Otherwise, they aren't delivering. You do have to sustain that investment. 

I also think we can be—and can continue to be—creative about how we provide development experiences for employees. Not all learning and development experiences need to involve going to a training course. For example, mini-rotations inside agencies can help employees learn new skills. EPA took this approach with its Skills Marketplace. 

This kind of training is a chance to learn something. It's also a way to continue to deliver against your mission as an agency, and it's a great opportunity for employees to develop a network. So, there are a lot of creative things that agencies can do to develop their people in the world of tight budget environments. 

It's all about getting that mix right and thinking about where agencies can be smart about how we invest. We have to ask: How can we create learning opportunities that don't involve training per se to leverage the immense amount of talent we've got in the federal government? We’ve got to recognize that unless we can keep our workforce learning, they are not going to be able to deliver against the agency mission.   

What are some of the major programs and initiatives that you'd like to see continued in the next administration and how would you promote their continuation? 

What I've been focused on since joining government in October 2013 is really thinking about how we can make government more effective. That means finding ways to deliver services to the American people that are the same level of quality that they've come to expect in the rest of their lives. 

The smart use of technology is an enduring issue and a nonpartisan issue. Enhancing customer service by thinking about the end-user and the citizen experience also is an enduring issue. In addition, the work we're doing to bring millennials and other talent into government is very important, because that's how we're going to get the people we need. 

Do you have any final thoughts for managers in government? What is your advice to them? 

First, the work that these individuals are doing inside the federal government every day has a massive impact. The American public, I think, intuitively understands that. The first thing I'd say is thank you. I would also repeat a comment that the president made when he spoke to the Senior Executive Service in December 2014. He challenged that group to come into work every day and say, "We are doing great work. We are doing important work. What can we do to do it better?" 

I would encourage all federal managers to keep asking that question and keep pursuing the path to find ways to do these things better. That's how we're going to make a difference, and that's how we're going to leverage employee talent. That's how we're going to create learning experiences, and it is how we'll make a difference that people can see and feel and touch.

On September 10, 2015, Beth Cobert, acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, addressed the Government Workforce Learning Innovations Conference about the challenges faced by today’s government managers and employees, and the future of the federal workforce.

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