Management

How a data team became the heroes of one agency’s pandemic response

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S., and as public and private sector workplaces scrambled to keep employees on the job but out of the office, health agencies and experts soared to the front of American media to advise and lead the pandemic response.

But for the Farm Credit Administration, which had the highest COVID-19 response scores of any federal agency in the recent Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, leaning on their newly minted Office of Data Analytics proved essential to keeping employees safe and satisfied.

“From the start, we felt we needed to provide [employees] with factual data and stay in close touch with them,” FCA Chairman Glen Smith told Federal Times. “We had just created the new Office of Data Analytics the previous year, and we really put that team to the test.”

The creation of that office stemmed from an early 2019 law requiring agencies to designate a chief data officer and improve data management practices.

But the role envisioned for such an official — managing agency data assets, ensuring data meets standardization expectations, and coordinating how best to use agency data to improve operations and help the public — ended up quite different for the FCA under the pandemic.

Smith said that when the office was first created, analyzing health metrics “was about as far from consideration [as possible],” as the agency’s mission dealt so heavily with finance and economics.

“We would monitor our health metrics, not only for our headquarters here in the D.C.-area but also our locations throughout the country. And those health metrics were shared with the employees, with the [Emergency Response Team] meeting and also with our employee councils on a regular basis,” Smith said.

Those metrics were used to inform agency teleworking procedures and identify what steps would need to be taken to safely return employees to the office.

For example, the agency began crafting plans in fall 2020 to start returning employees to the office, when COVID-19 infection rates had decreased over the summer. “We all know that things changed, and we changed policy accordingly,” Smith said.

According to Vonda Bell, director of the Office of Agency Services and chief human capital officer for FCA, the agency’s COVID-19 response was marked by quickly providing flexibilities to respond to emerging employee needs, based on feedback from the health data and the employees.

“They centered on things that were really key to the employees dealing with this world of uncertainty,” Bell said. “Children were all of a sudden switched to virtual learning, and so we put policies in place to allow parents to take the time that they needed to care for their children, to care for their families, without having to be worried about: ‘Do I need to request leave, or do I have enough leave?’ ”

In addition to deferring to what the data was telling agency leaders about the needs and medical status of the pandemic, Smith said he also deferred to Bell as the agency’s top personnel official in determining what would benefit employees, and when.

And though the White House has given agencies the green light to begin returning employees en masse to the office after submitting safety plans by the end of this month, Smith said that FCA policy will give all employees three weeks’ notice before their work status changes and 30 days’ notice before the total office reopening.

Post pandemic, FCA plans to approach telework situations in as flexible a manner as possible, leaving much of the decision up to discussions between an employee and that person’s immediate manager, likely to be a popular strategy, as satisfaction with supervisors reached a 93 out of 100 for the agency in 2020.

As for the data office, Smith said he can “see using data analytics in many different areas” across the agency besides health practices.

Added Bell: “I always tease them that they’re the baby of the family, and I remind them that nothing brings an organization together or a family together like a baby.

“They’ve been able to provide such insight and information with the data. I can’t even imagine operating without them going forward.”

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