Acting Office of Personnel Director Beth Cobert has faced a few tall orders during her time in government.
From navigating the cyber breach that devastated the agency to finding new ways to address employee engagement in the federal workforce, Cobert talks to Senior Staff Reporter Carten Cordell about the challenges of the job and what her successor needs to know.
Q. During your tenure at OPM, you put a big emphasis on metrics and their use to improve employee engagement. Talk about the use of metrics as an engagement tool and its importance moving forward.
Well, as I say in many forums, I’m a big believer in metrics. I am a data geek at heart because I think they are a really great way of giving us insight into how we’re operating. What’s working, what’s not working and how we can make improvements. You know, we’ve used the metrics from the [Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey] over a number of years around employee engagement and not just creating metrics, but creating tools like Unlocktalent.gov that make that data accessible — accessible to leaders and participants throughout an organization, so they can understand what’s happening and how they can do better. If you’re in one part of a larger agency, you can see the other parts and see what’s working for you, what’s not and what can you do.
They give leaders, managers, supervisors, employees a way of frankly understanding their own performance and a way of seeing where they’re making progress. We spent a lot of time since I arrived, even in my days at the Office of Management and Budget, focused on employee engagement. We know engaged employees deliver better results. And so working with agency leadership, in partnership with front-line employees, in partnership with [the Department of] Labor, say: "How can we make employee engagement better?"
I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to turn around the overall government trend after a number of years of decline to get those scores back up. ... I think data holds us accountable and helps us stay accountable in the future. It gives us momentum. It gives us all a way of saying: "Where do we need to focus, what can we do next and how are we doing?"
Q. In talking about the challenges you faced stepping into the OPM director role, how did they inform your leadership and how might they inform your successor?
When I arrived, getting our hands around where we were in our cybersecurity was Job One. And so I spent a great deal of time working on that. We had a whole-of-government problem, and so one of the things we did was have a whole-of-government response. We had folks from [the Department of Homeland Security] and [the Department of Defense] and every other agency that we could find helping us work our way to strengthen our systems and deliver services to those who’ve been impacted by the breach.
At the same time, we had to continue the rest of the important work of OPM. So it was a real challenge for me thinking about how do you have this intense focus on addressing the cyber issues, but not let the momentum slow on the rest of the work that we were doing.
I was fortunate, we are fortunate, that the team here was able to actually drive the rest of that work forward while certainly, initially, my core focus was on addressing cyber issues. Hopefully the person coming in, I know they’ll have a little more balance against those different issues and so can actually focus more evenly across them.
Q. When you came into OPM in 2015, there were several heavy lifts going on: standing up the metrics, improving employee engagement and recovering from the cyber breach. What advice would you give your successor about this job?
A. So I'd probably start with saying: 'You know this job is about helping the workforce deliver for the American people
And it is really important to get a firsthand appreciation of the work that goes on every day. Fighting forest fires, helping our vets, working in labs discovering new diseases, helping people get disability benefits
People make a difference every single day
So the first piece of advice I'd say is to really understand and appreciate the wealth of work the federal workforce does.
The diversity of that work — 85 percent of the federal workforce is not here in Washington, D.C. — and the commitment and the passion that those individuals bring, that's the first piece
The second would be to think about the multiple parts of the OPM mission ... from ensuring we have a trusted workforce through what we do in background investigations to helping agencies hire talent; to focus on engagement, to help deliver employee benefits to annuitants and current employees
There's a wealth of work that goes on around here, and focusing on making sure that that level of operational excellence, of innovation, of creative problem-solving around that work continues
And finally, I couldn't go without mentioning it, continuing the work we're doing to modernize and make our systems even more secure
That work needs to continue
That's going to be a focus. It was a key focus for me, it's going to be a focus for my successor
Q. We're in the midst of a presidential transition. For you, as an outgoing OPM director, what does that mean in terms of the process? What are you working on to assist that process?
A. So OPM plays sort of two roles in the transition
We provide support to the overall governmentwide transition through things like the publication of the Plum Book, through the work we do in creating a transition guide for federal agencies
an employee handbook there — through the work we do in supporting our reporting requirements to Congress on
onversion of political appointees and a number of things like that
So we have a cross-government role that's being really well-led by our team here
We also have work on transition inside the agency itself
eing led by a terrific career executive, Jozie Robinson, who leads our executive secretary office. She's been working with our
associate directors and our office heads to make sure that there are a set of clear transition materials available for the team
She's been part of the [Agency Transition [Directors] Council. So we're kind of working on both of those things simultaneously to continue and do as the president's committed we all are going to do work on: delivering a super-high-quality transition experience in the tradition of American democracy
Q. What is your hope for the future of OPM? What would you say to federal employees as your tenure winds down?
A. What I'd say to federal employees is what a privilege it has been to be one of them for the last three and a half years
I joined the federal government from the private sector. I hadn't worked in government at all and it has been an absolutely fantastic experience
I see the dedication they bring every day, I see the talent that they have, I see when we're at our best how we reflect the richness of America
I see folks coming to work every day, thinking about how they can deliver for the constituency they're trying to serve. It's really been an honor at OPM to think about what we can do to bring in more talent, to develop the talent that's here, to help them be recognized for the great work they do and to think about how to enable them to do their jobs better. Because that's what everybody wants to do, they want to come to work
They want to make a difference, and for me being part of that has been an absolutely rewarding experience
Q. If you had to pick your proudest achievement while at OPM, what would it be?
A. Oh my gosh, it's so hard to pick
I came from an institution that focused on three, so I'm going to pick three
One of the three was being one of the first
gencies to install the [
Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation]
capability in Einstein 3A
[It's] sort of emblematic of the work we've done to get cyber in place
Another great moment was the conference we had just a couple weeks back
celebrating our achievement of hiring 100,000 individuals with disabilities into the federal workforce so we can take advantage of their talents. Having that meeting, not just to focus on that, but to think about what's the next step
How do we do more to capitalize and leverage on those talents?
is just the interactions I have with our partners across agencies and helping solve each of their specific problems about some kind of talent that they needed or the work that needs to be done
. And w
atching our team think about what they can do, whether it was
how to get direct hire authority to the State Department, the [United States Agency for International Development], and [the Department of Health and Human Services] to respond to [the] Zika [virus] in an incredibly fast way. Watching those skills come together makes me really proud