Beth Cobert: OPM connects employees, public through better data

Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, wants more people to know about the hard, important work federal employees do every day.

Beth Cobert, the acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management, is trying to make sure the federal workforce represents the American public it serves through a series of diversity and inclusion efforts. Cobert sat down with Federal News Radio in honor of Public Service Recognition Week to highlight the impact of federal service and OPM’s role in the federal community.

Tell us something about your job that most people don’t know or realize.

Something about my job that most people don’t know or realize is how many different kinds of services we provide to the federal workforce to current federal workers, to former federal workers and to aspiring federal workers.

Probably something else that most people don’t know about my job is how many people you can get on a telephone call at three in the morning when you are trying to decide what to do about weather.

When you think about services we provide, when you say retirement, there are many different kinds of retirement systems and programs. When we are working with retirees, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the right folks with the right one dealing with their unique set of family circumstances.

Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.

When we are dealing with federal employee health benefits, there is a range of choices that we give to employees to make sure we’ve got terrific plans and are continually working to make those plans better. The initiatives we put this year around autism benefits are just one example of the way folks at OPM every day are thinking about what are the right benefits that federal employees really need and how do we translate that into something they can see and touch and feel.

We’re constantly looking for new ways to communicate with federal employees about the benefits they have and about how things work. The folks in retirement have been doing a series of webcasts for example to help people do better retirement planning, to think about federal retirement benefits and how they fit in.

When we rolled out self-plus one plans, this past year there was a huge effort to educate people, to make sure people knew what these options are, do they work for them and their family, and how do they make that choice? We constantly think about what’s the best way to do that. What can we do leveraging our agency partners? What can we do working with the federal community? What can we do with technology? Just always looking for what’s the next best way to get the message out there in a way people can understand. We love when we get feedback because it helps us make it better the next time around.

We continue to see at some level an almost insatiable appetite for more communication in multiple forms. We still get a lot of telephone calls to retirement services, but we’ve also seen a real increase in people reaching out by email, even federal retirees. So we need to find a way to communicate there.

We try to use our website as a forum for getting answers to people’s questions when people sent us questions about the cybersecurity incident. It was a great way for us to get that feedback and to get answers back to them in a way they could access.

We see more and more people downloading the OPM weather app. On a day in the winter, it’s a much better way to getting information directly to federal employees than long lines of email chains. We continue to see a mix of technology, but we also know sometimes you need that personal touch.

How does your job connect the government with government employees in a more efficient or effective way?

We connect with employees every single day. We connect with them when they are a manager and are looking to hire and bring somebody into the federal workforce. We connect with employees in the federal government when they are looking for ways to build their skills so they can advance their career. We work with agencies to create a whole array of fantastic training opportunities, some of which are in person, some of which are online. We work with employees and support efforts of employees to connect with each other through employee resource groups to help create an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion. So lots of different things to both bring people into the federal workforce, and frankly, help them grow and develop while they are here.

I, and the administration, are totally committed to the importance of diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce. We need a federal workforce that reflects the American people that we come to work every day to serve. We need a diverse workforce because we need those distinct perspectives, when you bring different and diverse perspectives together you get better answers to the really tough problems that the federal workers are trying to address every day.

We also need an environment that is inclusive. It’s not enough just to bring people in, but it’s critical to make sure when they are here, their voices are heard; they can speak their minds; their opinions are respected. So we are doing a whole range of work around that, whether it’s leveraging the insights from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to think about inclusion with the New IQ, and the training that goes around that. Or whether it’s working to think about how do we confront the unconscious bias that can get in the way of individuals coming to the workforce, advancing in the workforce and having their perspectives heard. There is a whole range of things we are doing with our agency partners to say, ‘how do we as the federal government, the large employer that we are, make this a workforce that’s representative of the American people, hears those voices and acts on those voices?’

Enhancing the Senior Executive Service is a core element of the President’s Management Agenda and enhancing the diversity of the SES is an element of that. We continue to do a number of things. One, we continue to look at the data. We think the data is really instructive, not just the data on who is currently in the SES, but what does the pipeline look like.

Second, we are working with agencies to help them bring diverse candidates into their SES career development programs. There are some terrific examples. The Department of Agriculture has made a big commitment on this score, and they’ve done some very interesting and creative things. They now use blinded applications so that when they are evaluating candidates, they don’t know the gender or racial background of that person that sometimes can get revealed through their name. When they have done this, they’ve seen a real increase in their ability to bring in diverse candidates. It’s getting at that unconscious bias question. They’ve also made a very concerted effort to try and encourage diverse candidates to step up and apply, to get through that barrier that says, ‘Gee, those folks don’t look like me so I’m not going to be part of that group.’ But literally reaching out and finding talented people and putting them into this blinded pool.

We also are doing work with a number of employee resource groups on building more diverse programs. The Asian-American Government Executives Network (AAGEN) had a program for a number of years that really has been helpful in bringing more diversity into the pool. It’s something we are making progress on. You can see the results at USDA, and you can start to see it elsewhere, but we have more work to do. It’s something I’m real passionate about.

The program that we’ve been working on around hiring excellence is really focused on ensuring that hiring managers and HR specialists are working together to bring great talent into the federal government and working to take advantage of the flexibilities that do exist today. How do we make sure when a hiring manager is thinking about filling a position, they really have a job description that describes what they really need. If they know what they a really need, if they can put that out there, they can then bring in folks who are going to be qualified and who are going to meet the very demanding roles that we have. It’s about this core partnership.

One of the critical things about our hiring excellence program is that we are actually going to where the federal employees are. We are going out of Washington D.C. because as we know the vast majority of federal employees are not in the DC area and getting a message from here out to Colorado or California or Tampa or San Antonio or Philadelphia or even Baltimore can sometimes be harder than doing it here. So we are doing this together, and we are doing this in a way that brings those folks together in a workshop to work on practical issues, you have the hiring manager and the HR specialist that supports them. We are helping them with mythbusters. We are helping them to think about the great ways you can use Pathways to bring in talent at the start of their career. We are helping them think about how they can use assessments to really figure out who is qualified for the job so you are looking at the right pool of people to do this work.

It is a big program. It’s a big effort and, again, it’s a partnership between OPM and agencies because the agencies are the ones doing the hiring.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in job with the government?

The best thing I’ve done in my job in government is the work I’ve done in my job at Office of Management and Budget and here at OPM around the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The FEVS, in my mind, is an incredible tool to hear the insights and the perspectives of the federal workforce. What we’ve worked on through the FEVS, the President’s Management Agenda work on employee engagement is to take that from a survey to a tool, where we hear from the federal workforce and we act on what we hear. We made the survey and driving the importance of that and driving action coming out of the survey. We’ve focused on making that data more available both to the public and to managers through where they can actually use the data in a way that helps improves performance. We know when federal employees are engaged, employee engagement leads to better results. We know from the survey how committed the federal workforce is to their mission and, in my mind, the work we continue to do on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey gives us the insight we need to translate that dedication, to remove barriers and to help people do what they come to work every day to do which is to serve the American public and make a difference.

We’ve focused both on the survey and how we use the data from the survey. So, the work on the new IQ, inclusion quotient, is one thing where we said we have all this information and perspectives, how do we bring that together to think about the issue of inclusion?

We’ve also provided much more tangible tools that a manager can use. How does their unit compare to another unit in their agency that is doing similar kind of work so they can start to say, ‘What can I do differently? What is that person down the road, across the country, in the other office doing to get great results and how can I partner with them?’ And we’ve worked with agency leadership to say, ‘How do we find those pockets of great practice and replicate them more quickly?’ So it’s both in the survey and, frankly, the big focus we’ve had is how do we make sure we take these incredibly rich set of resources and put it to work. We talk about it at the most senior levels of government, and we want people talking about it all the way through government because it’s a great tool for all of us to use together.

I feel like we have seen a real improvement. I started in federal government the day after the federal government shutdown. So at some level there was a real opportunity to go up from there. What makes federal employees excited, in my experience at OMB and here, is them having the ability to do what they come to work every to do. Do they have a budget with some certainty? Do they have the ability to do effective planning because they know what’s coming? How can they take advantage of the tools they have to bring on more great people? Do they have the IT tools they need? The more we continue to work on those things, the more people get excited because they get more done every day, and they make more of a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens, and that makes them excited to wake up the next morning and come back and do even more and make a bigger difference.

What’s the best piece of job related advice you ever got?

The best piece of advice I ever got was to make sure when I saw something that wasn’t working I raised the issue. But that when I raised the issue, I did so with a potential solution in mind. It may not be the solution we adopted, and it may not be as much of an issue as I thought, but all of us have the obligation to look around every day. If you do that and come in with that mindset people will always be open to your input. It was a great piece of advice.

What is your message to federal employees and contractors for Public Service Recognition Week?

The work that goes on in the federal government every day is incredibly important and incredibly hard, and people are devoted to doing it well. We need to tell that story more often. We need to tell our friends and colleagues in the federal workforce, but importantly those outside the federal workforce, about what everybody does every day. I see it. I feel it and I wish more people knew about it.

Read all our coverage of the 2016 Public Service Recognition Week.

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