The 85 percent: OPM’s DeGraff aims to realign FEBs with new initiative

OPM's Kelly DeGraff shares an inside view of what's happening with Federal Executive Boards (FEBs) across the country, and what's in store for them in future.

From Feb. 12-16, Federal News Network will, day by day, dive into the details of each of the four Federal Executive Board regions currently operating across the U.S. On top of featuring the work and plans of each of the boards, we’ll take a closer look at the path that lies ahead for FEBs. Stay tuned for more!

Federal News Network’s Workforce Reporter Drew Friedman sat down in October 2023 with Kelly DeGraff, deputy associate director of the Federal Executive Boards at the Office of Personnel Management, in order to get an inside view of what’s happening with Federal Executive Boards (FEBs) across the country, and what’s in store for them in future.

Drew Friedman So let’s start with the basics on Federal Executive Boards. For anyone who might not be familiar with the work that you do and the work of FEBs, explain a little bit more about what these boards do.

Kelly DeGraff Absolutely. So most federal agencies have regional offices in key geographic areas throughout the country. And in each area, the senior executives from these offices, they come together to form the Federal Executive Boards, or the FEBs, and they meet regularly to collaborate on projects to share resources. These boards help the government work better, really, all over the country. There are 26 boards across the country, and each represents an average of 140 agencies, which is really impressive. The federal government is the largest federal employer in the United States, with approximately 2.2 million employees, and roughly 85% of those employees live outside of the National Capital Region. And that is who these Federal Executive Boards represent, and they’re really integral in advancing community engagement, employee development, emergency preparedness efforts, and really making government accessible on the local level.

Drew Friedman Yeah, it sounds like there’s a lot of work there to do. And that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people necessarily think about, is that government employees aren’t all in the D.C. area, in the DMV. They’re all over the country; 85%, as you said, are outside that area, which is crazy to think about, but it definitely makes the work of FEBs very important there. So maybe you can share a little bit more about some specific examples of how FEBs work. You mentioned you have community engagement efforts. You help with emergency preparedness. So what does that look like? Or what are some of the things that you work on there?

Kelly DeGraff Right. This is my favorite question that I get asked because it’s my opportunity to really tell the incredible story of the FEBs. So they really are instrumental in several areas, including creating shared training programs that benefit multiple agencies. And these types of things not only streamline costs, but they really also foster that sense of community among federal employees. In fact, I’m in Seattle right now meeting with our Seattle board. And yesterday, I met with federal employees who are part of the Seattle Leadership Associates Program. And this is a program that brings together emerging leaders from across 170 federal agencies, which I just think is incredible. The program is really about cultivating that next generation of federal leaders. And they do this by equipping them with the skills needed to succeed, and they match them with mentors and lead them through special projects. And this is the example just from the Seattle Federal Board. And again, I had the opportunity, the pleasure to meet with them yesterday. But most FEBs offer similar programs for early career employees. And what is also incredible is that they maintain an active alumni network so that individuals who have been in the program then tend to come back and serve as mentors for these emerging leaders programs. So that’s a big one, these learning and professional development opportunities. The FEBs also partner with educational institutions regionally to really work to create diverse talent pipelines in the public service. They meet with students, they attend career fairs, they meet with counselors, all to promote public service and federal employment. And along the same lines, they conduct community outreach. They organize volunteer opportunities like blood drives, clothing drives, holiday toy drives. And they lead the Combined Federal Campaign in their regions. The FEBs also conduct interagency emergency exercises. And this is so important — they conduct these exercises in advance of an emergency to be able to establish protocols and identify areas for improvement before an event happens. And they really establish that cohesiveness and connectedness. For example, New York recently held an exercise in partnership with the New York Emergency Management, and it involved over 60 agencies all coming together, and really understanding each other’s plans, and who brings what to the table. Two more areas that I’ll mention that I think are really important. The next one is DEIA. The boards sponsor diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility committees. These committees come together to implement training programs to address things like unconscious bias and create, again, those mentorship opportunities to support underrepresented talent. And they really provide a space for these important discussions and the sharing of best practices. And then one of the other pieces that is consistent across the boards are recognition programs. The FEBs do a phenomenal job at celebrating the incredible work of workforce excellence through these cross-agency recognition activities. And while each board is unique, they all focus on core programmatic themes that really include things like workforce hiring, recruitment, leadership development, emergency preparedness and community initiatives. It’s challenging to single out any one board as they all contribute so significantly in each of these areas.

Drew Friedman That’s really impressive, Kelly. Workforce recruitment and retention, early career training and development — those are things I hear all the time from people within government and also from those in the Biden administration as just really key to what is the future of the federal government. And so it sounds like the feds are really tied into and really tuned in to that work there. But I did want to ask about you personally. I know that you just started your role very recently. So are there things, in the first few months that you’ve been in this position, that you’ve been focusing on? Or what are some of your short-term goals for the FEBs?

Kelly DeGraff Yeah, absolutely. So I just celebrated my second month in my role and I’ll share, Drew, that the FEBs are going through a significant transformation right now. And this transformation is aimed at really solidifying their role as a central resource for interagency collaboration. We like to say, “beyond the Beltway.” This reform is known as “FEB forward.” And FEB forward addresses longstanding issues of inconsistent funding and fragmented governance structure. FEB forward introduces a new funding model. It introduces executive leadership, a tri-governance council, and really a realignment. There’s a lot of change that’s happening right now. And that’s really, I think, important to understand in order for me to really answer your question well. Because right now, my job is to really help us navigate this change. And my focus is on a blend of organizational excellence and meaningful impact. And so working in partnership with the staff, with the boards, with various stakeholders, we developed a roadmap for 2024. 2024 is this transitional year for us. And this roadmap focuses on three pillars. And the first pillar is around building a cohesive organization with inclusive governance. And what this looks like, as you translate this into reality, is this is about crafting a five-year strategic plan and refining our mission and refining our vision for greater alignment. So that’s the first one — really working to build that cohesive organization. The second pillar is around ensuring excellence and operational impact. This is a dual focus. The focus of this pillar is on ensuring fiscal accountability, as well as the execution of our flagship programs. We want to make sure that as we’re in this year of transition, we’re almost like a startup. And while we’re building that, we are still supporting our existing boards and that we are continuing to support those flagship programs that they are known for in their community. And then the third pillar — and you’re actually helping us right now reach this third pillar — is elevating the profile of the FEBs. We want to enhance our narrative. We want to do a better job of communicating the value and the contributions of the FEBs. So I would say that is the focus for FY 24. And then, that five-year strategic plan, that’s going to be crafted with input from all of our various stakeholders and staff members, and that will guide us then over the next several years.

Drew Friedman Sounds like you guys have a lot of big plans in store there. That’s really awesome to hear. I think something that comes to mind for me, when I was listening to you explain all of that, is there are so many FEBs that exist, and there’s this big network across the country right now. So do you ever see any challenges in trying to communicate or collaborate across all of these different areas? Or how often are you in touch with each of the individual boards? You mentioned that you’re in Seattle right now, but how often are you going out in the field like that and communicating with FEB leaders?

Kelly DeGraff That’s a great question. One of the initial things I did when I first came on board was launching what I call a listening tour, along with my support staff from headquarters. It was really important to make sure that before we started to implement anything, I needed to make sure that I understood what the pain points were, where the successes were. And what our boards thought should be the main focus. So this listening tour first started virtually, attending a lot of the board meetings virtually. And then over the last month, I’ve been able to visit quite a few. I was in Dallas-Fort Worth last month. Last week, I was in New York and New Jersey. And then, I think next week or the week after, it’s Pittsburgh. So we have this plan of doing this outreach and really getting out with the boards and sitting down with them and hearing what they think FEB Forward should be and how we should move forward.

Drew Friedman Kelly, talking about going out and reaching out to all of these different FEBs and meeting with them in person, you mentioned that you hear both their successes and their pain points. Can you give an example or two of what are some of the things where FEBs are saying, “hey, you know, this could be improved,” or “hey, this is working really well?”

Kelly DeGraff Yeah, absolutely. So I will say that overall, there is resounding support for bringing the FEBs under the umbrella of OPM. The boards recognize that move as being very strategic and very thoughtful, and that they see it as really enhancing the effectiveness and the reach of the FEBs. And by having the staff centralized — and this is what I’m hearing as I’m speaking with the boards — by having the FEBs centralized, we’re making our operations more unified and more efficient, which then increases the collaboration. And it really positions us to stay focused on key goals. The centralized oversight also makes us more accountable and transparent, which really then improves our overall responsiveness to both government agencies and to the public. And so I’m hearing that from the boards, and they’re really excited about the change. I think that some of the consistent pain points that I hear across the board — of the boards — is very similar to what I hear in also the private sector. There is a great concern about the workforce overall and being able to recruit diverse talent into public service. And how do we as public servants compete with the private sector? That is a concern across all of the boards. And so we are starting to work on strategies of what this looks like. What could an FEB strategic initiative look like to really do targeted recruitment and increasing our partnerships that we have with different academic institutions, community colleges, universities, trade schools, etc.? And so, we’re looking at how do we formalize some of these partnerships and really create that pipeline to help reduce some of that uncertainty in what the next legacy of the public service workforce looks like?

Drew Friedman No, I think that absolutely makes sense. And as I said, that’s something that I hear a lot in my own work, in my own conversations that I have with those working in government. So that absolutely makes sense. And one thing I did want to bring up as well — you mentioned at the top there are a number of FEBs that already exist. Are there ways that you are looking to expand the program in the future, or expand the reach of FEBs beyond what they can reach now?

Kelly DeGraff Absolutely. While the FEBs have grown modestly since their inception, which was in 1961, there are still areas across the nation with significant federal activity, but no FEB presence. And so, under the FEB Forward initiative, we’re looking at ways to fill these gaps, or this “white space,” as we call it. And this could manifest in a number of different ways. And some of these include the possible addition of new boards, expanding the reach of the existing boards by advertising their leadership training, their disaster preparedness efforts, by incorporating other communities into those efforts. We’re looking at, what makes sense? Because we also don’t want to just expand existing boards and have those existing boards lose their local flavor, right? So it’s a nuanced balance there. But we also know that we need to reach those other areas that have that significant population of federal employees. And so, we’re looking at how do we partner with, for example, the Partnership for Public Service? How do we partner with the federal executive associations? How do we partner with some of those existing organizations out there where we can really force multiply our efforts by joining together? We don’t have a firm roadmap or a prescriptive roadmap of, “here’s how we’re going to do this.” I think that in 2024 and in 2025, we’re going to pilot various ways of what this can look like. And the one thing that I’ve talked with staff about is when we pilot, we also have to be aware and not be afraid to fail, because not all pilots work. And I also believe that there is a very positive element that can come from — and you’ve probably heard this term before — “failing forward.” So we’re going to see what happens. And we’re going to see how we can fill these gaps. And there’ll be some trial and error there. But I think that the opportunities are really exciting to uncover.

Drew Friedman That does sound really exciting, Kelly. And that is really interesting too, because you mentioned that with the FEBs that already exist, there are so many different agencies involved sometimes. You said 100 or 150 can be represented just by one board. So that’s very rich and very significant — different areas of the country are thinking about this. So that’s really great. And something else that I did want to bring up — and you mentioned this earlier, and it might tie into this as well, as you’re looking to pilot or try things out. The funding model for FEBs is, I believe, changing or in the process of change. So can you explain a little bit more about how FEBs’ work is funded? And is that something the Biden administration is trying to redirect?

Kelly DeGraff Absolutely. That’s a great question. Historically, Drew, the FEBs have really faced two main challenges that have, I think, broadly hindered their effectiveness. Not stopped their effectiveness, because they’ve been incredibly effective. But those two challenges have been inconsistent funding and that fragmented governance. And so the FEB Forward initiative is really designed to address both of those challenges by introducing both more stabilized funding and the centralized approach to governance. And so under this new funding model, agencies who fall under the Chief Financial Officers Act, or the CFO Act, are authorized to contribute a predetermined amount of funds to OPM to support the administration of the FEB program. This is new. Before this change, before this authorization, the FEBs functioned on an ad hoc basis where they relied on voluntary resources from agencies in the specific regions. The support was inconsistent throughout the nation. And so this new funding model really is a game changer. It allows us to have this predictable funding, allows us to better plan for allocation of resources, including human capital and operational expenses, all leading to really more effective program delivery. So, we’re really excited about the new funding model.

Drew Friedman That sounds great. And it seems like it’s kind of all coming together really well, where you’re changing the organizational structure, you’re changing the funding, as you’re looking to also expand the reach of FEBs as well. So it seems like it’s all coming together, I guess, as the opposite of a perfect storm — you have this perfect cohesion of all these different things going on.

Kelly DeGraff Right.

Drew Friedman And Kelly, just wrapping up here, I know we’ve covered a lot of ground about what FEBs do, their importance and how far they reach across the nation for the federal workforce. Anything else you can offer in terms of what does the future hold for FEBs, or the federal workforce overall?

Kelly DeGraff Yeah, absolutely. So I want to say that the FEB forward initiative that you heard me talk about, it’s not just a short-term solution. It really is a long-term strategy that’s strategically designed to meet both current and future challenges. And I think that the future of the FEBs is we have the opportunity to offer a blueprint for innovation, for agility and for impact. I think with this streamlined governance and a focus on resource efficiency, that we are really setting the stage for a seamless interagency collaboration, and really public service excellence. And I know this is going to sound corny, but I really believe this. I think that we’re not just adapting to change with the FEBs. We’re actually leading it. And our boards are really pioneering and leading this change, and it’s all to better serve our federal community. And then ultimately, the American people. It’s a fantastic place to be right now.

Drew Friedman Kelly DeGraff is deputy associate director of the Federal Executive Boards at the Office of Personnel Management. And I am Drew Friedman, a reporter with Federal News Network. Thank you so much for joining us today.


Video edited by Derace Lauderdale. Video transcribed by Michele Sandiford.

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