Cobert: Technology, innovation key to OMB’s management agenda

Listen to Beth Cobert's full speech at ACT-IAC's Executive Leadership Conference

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Technology is transforming daily life and agencies need to harness that innovation to make government work better.

That’s the whole idea behind the Obama administration’s management agenda, according to Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. She spoke Monday, Oct. 27, at the 2014 ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia.

OMB released the management agenda at the same time as President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request last spring.

Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (File photo)
The challenge, as Cobert sees it, is to take all of the advances in technology that people see every day and bring it to bear across the federal government in order to create innovation and deliver great service for the American businesses and the public.

According to Cobert, OMB’s management agenda is built on four pillars — effectiveness, efficiency, economic growth, and people and culture. “Each one of these comes together in an integrated way to try and improve what we do every day,” she said.

By effectiveness, Cobert means “world-class” and “21st century” service for businesses and the American public. The smarter use of IT plays a big part in increasing agencies’ effectiveness.

“Efficiency, increasing the quality and the value in core operations to improve productivity, increase cost savings, deliver more for our dollars,” Cobert said. “It’s a multifaceted effort with many different components. How do you use telework to both improve the way people work and reduce the federal real estate footprint? How do you expand shared services so that the people and the components in the federal agencies who built real expertise can leverage that and others can use that?”

When it comes to economic growth, the challenge is to make the vast amount of data generated by the federal government accessible to the public.

“How do we take the innovation that occurs every day in federal laboratories and bring that to create economic opportunity?” Cobert asked. “The open data program was part of this effort and a big element of it.”

In order to make everything else happen, she said, you really need the final pillar, people and culture.

“It is a core element of what we need to do,” Cobert said. “We need a well-trained workforce that is capable of doing what we need to do in the 21st century. That means bringing new talent into government and capitalizing on the talent we already have, giving them the skills and the opportunities to deliver.”

Finding ways to improve government efficiency

To help improve efficiency in government, OMB has been focusing on benchmarking administrative support services in the 24 CFO Act agencies and a number of other large agencies.

“We said to agencies, ‘We’re going to find common data. We’re going to find data that, in general, we’re using already and think about how we can bring that together to bring new insights to management,'” Cobert said.

OMB worked with the General Services Administration and a number of groups, including the Chief Executive Officer Council, the Chief Real Property Council, the Chief Acquisition Officers Council, the CIO Council and the CHCO Council, asking them to share what metrics mattered the most to them.

“We had two criteria,” Cobert said. “One, is there data there already? Because we don’t have time to wait. And second, can we think of a decision that someone would make if they had more insight, if they had more data? If you can’t think of a decision you would make with the data, then we don’t want that metric. We’re going to find one that might be helpful.”

Over the summer, OMB conducted a series of data-driven reviews at the agencies with the benchmarking and PortfolioStat process done together. Cobert found the process to be useful.

“We knew if we could get that data and we could put it into the hands of agency leadership, they would find ways to use it wisely,” she said. The goal of the effort was not to create a “one-size-fits-all solution.”

“When we were leading this process at OMB, what we said to agency is, ‘Here’s your data. You tell us what it means to you. You tell us what’s important. You’re the folks working there every day, together we’re going to think about this means,” she said. “And so, we’ve created a set of tools and processes to keep this going and to help us all drive efficiency.”

OMB is set to begin the second phase of this effort, which will include a tool that will allow people to create their own benchmarks.

“You now have a tool that we’ve distributed through GSA to agencies to let them look at this data and say, ‘Create your own peer group. Find the data. Look for those opportunities,'” she said. “And, importantly, the next round of this is how do we find quality?”

Using data to spur economic growth

OMB is also looking for ways to use government data to spur economic growth and innovation.

To address this effort, the administration has hosted datapaloozas across a variety of fields, such as education, safety and climate.

“The goal on these is to think about how can we create data and make it available in open, machine-readable formats,” Cobert said. “How can we then let innovation reign and take that data and find new ways to bring it together? That’s a core element of what we’re doing and working forward.”

The final pillar of OMB’s management agenda — people and culture — covers a those programs and initiatives that center around bringing talented people into government and making the most of talented individuals already working at agencies.

OMB is looking at ways to be more flexible with federal hiring and is encouraging agencies to use the authorities they already have in place to hire IT professionals more quickly. Efforts like the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, for example, can help agencies attract new talent to government service.

“But we also know that bringing more people in requires great leadership and so, that’s another place we’re focusing,” Cobert said. “Another core pillar of our work in the management agenda is around [the Senior Executive Service] and really creating programs that enable us to create senior executives, continue the learning and development of those individuals while they are senior executives. You don’t stop needing to learn and develop once you get to a certain level.”

OMB is also focusing on employee engagement. Cobert referenced the recently released Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results, which revealed “we have some development opportunities” — a comment by Cobert that elicted chuckles from the Executive Leadership Conference audience.

“The good news is we actually have data and tools that we all can use … to actually capitalize on those opportunities,” Cobert said. “Where are the places inside each of the agencies that people are doing well? What are the dynamics of the places that we’re doing?”

OMB teamed up with OPM to create the Unlocking Federal Talent website to help agencies make the most of the EVS results.

“It takes the data from the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it combines it with other HR resources, and it enables agencies to get a more and complete, in-depth picture of their workforce,” she said. “You can also take this data and now get it down to 20,000 different units across the federal government.”

Using tools like this, an agency can compare employees performing similar tasks, but who may be achieving different levels of success. The agency can then make adjustments based on the survey data.

“We think there is enormous opportunities to take this data and use it to make sound, data-driven decisions,” Cobert said. “That’s a core theme across the agenda, whether it applies to people in culture, whether it applies to open data, whether it applies to efficiency. How do you take data to spot where issues are? How do you take data to spot where solutions are and how do you bring those things together?”

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