Issue Briefs

Following is the text of a recent speech by Beth Cobert, who has been acting OPM director for two years and is set to leave when the Trump administration takes office in January.

I want to begin by saying what an absolute honor it has been to work alongside the talented, dedicated, and committed Federal employees who wake up every day determined to serve the American people. So I’m here today to say thank you and to reflect on my time in the Federal Government. I also want to share with you how I believe the leadership strategies of encouraging innovation, making data-driven decisions, finding the best talent from wherever you can, and owning your talent is essential to creating and maintaining a talented, inspired, and motivated Federal workforce.


Now let’s be honest. Some people may believe that what we do at OPM and as human capital professionals across government is, frankly, boring. After all, how exciting can we make reclassifying a job series, evaluating assessment techniques or issuing technical guidance on hiring authorities?

But what everyone in this room knows is that our work is vital to the success of the Federal government. As you can see on the screen behind me, I’ve brought along pictures of some of the talented public servants who drive our government forward every day. Very simply, the work we do, often behind the scenes, with little fanfare or notice, fuels efforts to make the government more efficient, more responsive, and more customer-friendly. Each and every day we help agencies make sure they have the staff – like these hard-working folks – they need to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
I’ve seen this happen first hand. In February of this year, OPM quickly granted direct-hire authority to enable the Departments of State, Health and Human Services, and USAID to quickly hire the epidemiologists, microbiologists, emergency management, and IT specialists they needed to better respond to the Zika virus. I believe this work helped to save lives.

In July, OPM helped the Department of Homeland Security fill several hundred critical cybersecurity positions by enabling it to use an expedited hiring process at a job fair that drew thousands of candidates. DHS interviewed more than 800 candidates at that job fair and made offers to more than 400 computer scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs — with many of these candidates already having joined the government.   In a world of increasingly frequent and complex cybersecurity challenges, these hires are crucial to our ability to keep our homeland safe and secure.

The work you and your teams do made it possible for NASA to hire the scientists I met at Cape Canaveral who are working on NASA’s journey to Mars. Or for the USDA to bring on board the inspector who travels to Iowa or Georgia to make sure our meat and poultry being sent to market is safe to eat. Or to hire physical therapist who help wounded veterans get back to full strength. As Jim said, I spent the majority of my career in the private sector helping clients make their businesses work better. That was my intention when I joined the Office of Management and Budget in late 2013 and that was my charge when the President asked me to lead OPM in the summer of 2015.

Although when I joined OPM my leadership was centered on the response to the cybersecurity breach, my challenge was to make sure that the important non-cyber work of the agency continued and flourished. I’m happy to report that the work continued unabated and we’ve made progress in many areas.

Let me talk first about the value and importance of innovation. An important lesson I’ve learned in my time in the private and public sectors is how important it is to promote innovation. We need people who think out of the box and innovate in order to tackle the increasingly complex challenges the Federal government faces. And, we know that the new generation of talent we are recruiting for Federal service wants to work in an environment where they are given the room to innovate and take risks.

The Administration has embraced this concept. From new graduates with advanced degrees to mid-level professionals to seasoned executives, the administration is adding innovative talent to Federal service and providing them with the opportunity to solve some of our most difficult problems.
OPM’s Federal Executive Institute is helping to lead this effort through its Presidential Executive Fellows Program. So far these fellows have been placed at eight agencies and they have already started to make a difference in Americans’ lives.


Here are just a couple of examples of their accomplishments.

• Andrew Wright, a former investment banker, is at DOT where he launched a Build America Bureau in July. In fewer than four months, Transportation has found more than $10 billion in financing for 21 vital infrastructure projects across the United States.
• And Rosetta Lue, a call-center expert with experience in the private and public sectors, has revolutionized the way America’s veterans can navigate the

Veterans Administration. A single-access telephone number that veterans can use to contact the VA for services – MyVA311 – went live on Veteran’s Day.
I could go on. These examples show what can be done when we adopt a mindset of innovation and of risk management.
In addition to the innovation they bring to government, these programs also illustrate something I believe very strongly in: the value of having professionals from government, private industry, from academia, and from the non-profit world move seamlessly between sectors. Such cross-pollination is a win-win. The Federal Government benefits from their expertise and employees bring their experiences back to industry or other sectors and make those enterprises better partners with government.

Data-driven decisions
The second strategy I want to talk to you about is the value of making data-driven decisions. Those of you who have heard me speak before know that I’m proud to say I’m a data geek. So it’s not surprising that this is one of my core leadership philosophies. Data is more than numbers. I’ve carried a book around with me for more than three decades. I got it the first week I started at McKinsey. It’s called Say It With Charts. The object of the book is show data in a way that tells an accurate and clear story that will help leaders make the right, smart, fact-based decisions.
OPM carried that philosophy through as we developed an interactive tool that transformed the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey into a powerful asset for government leaders. It now serves as a vehicle that managers can use to drill down into the opinions of their workforce on everything from job satisfaction to workplace flexibilities to employee engagement. With the development of we’ve enabled employees and managers to see employee engagement and satisfaction data down to the office level and together work to make them better.
As you know, there is ample evidence to indicate that a more engaged workforce is a more productive workforce. That’s one reason why we’ve incorporated employee engagement in SES performance reviews.

The enrichment of FEVS is working. Let me give you just two examples:

• At the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Jeh Johnson made improving their employee engagement scores a personal priority. In the past year alone, he and his top leadership team visited DHS offices in 22 cities and participated in more than 45 employee engagement events. They worked hard to fill key leadership vacancies and invest in professional development.  And similar efforts were pursued at every DHS component and at multiple levels of management. Those efforts paid off.  DHS’s 2015 FEVS results increased by three percentage points (from 53 percent to 56 percent) and DHS employee participation in the survey increased by 3 percent.
As the Secretary acknowledged, they are far from finished but they have gained momentum and learned– from the unit by unit results — what is working, what is not and how to adjust their efforts this year
• Here’s another example. Each year when NASA tops the list of Best Places to Work we all joke about how easy it must be for such scores to be high at a place where people work on such exciting stuff as going to Mars. But we also know that leadership must be vigilant when it comes to paying attention to employee engagement.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has done that. Using feedback from its FEVS, NASA created tools such as a Workforce Culture Strategy and Leader’s Handbook that help employees better connect with each other and to the agency’s mission.
The FEVS is just one example of using data-driven decisions to create change. This fall, OPM hosted the first ever Human Capital Analytics Symposium where we shared strategies for making data inform all we do – from day-to-day operations to the management of business processes to hiring and recruitment to performance.


As you can imagine, for OPM’s work beyond its key missions to support background investigations and strengthen the agency’s IT/cyber posture, a key focus revolves around recruitment and hiring. So I want to talk about two strategies that complement each other in these two areas.

Find Best Talent
The first is the need to find the best talent from wherever you can, from every corner of this great nation and from every community. The trend lines are positive. With the exception of American Indian and Natives, every Race and National Origin group has seen increases between September of 2009 and March of this year. We also have increased diversity in the senior leadership ranks in government, among our SES and SL.  But we also know that despite our efforts to reach out to diverse communities through stakeholder groups, employee resource groups, colleges and universities, and the efforts of both the Hispanic Council on Federal Employment and the Diversity and Inclusion in Government Council among others, we still are not where we want to be when it comes to creating a diverse workforce.

But I do want to highlight some areas where we’ve seen substantial progress.
• This year we exceeded the President’s 2009 Executive Order that challenged us to hire 100,000 people with disabilities over five years. We hired 109,575.
• We expanded our reach to veterans to help them make the transition from military service to civilian public service. Since fiscal year 2009 the Federal Government has hired more than half a million veterans in 24 different agencies.
• And, we’ve worked hard to help mentor, encourage, and facilitate the ability of women move up the leadership ladder. In September of 2009 30.6 percent of the SES was composed of women. As of March of 2016, that percentage was 35. In addition, we’ve essentially erased any pay gap between men and women at the SES level.

But what I want to talk about are the people behind these numbers.
Some of you may have been at the event we held at the White House in October to celebrate our exceeding the goal in the President’s EO on hiring people with disabilities. We heard at that event from Apurva Varia, a NASA rocket scientist who also happens to be hearing impaired. Mr. Varia was eloquent in his description of how he went from being an engineering student to living his dream of working for NASA and how supportive the environment has been for him at the Goddard Space Center. He also talked about how he worked on the design of four NASA rockets, including on one where he was able to be present at its launch. He actually saw his work going up into space. How exciting is that?
What his story brought home to all of us in that room was how important it is – as the President has said – to draw from the great diversity of this nation as we continue to build and retain a world-class workforce.

We’ve had successes in bringing more women into the leadership ranks. Bobbi Jeanquart, USDA’s CHCO – who I’m sure many of you know, is just one example of many women who have been reluctant to apply for senior executive positions because they didn’t think they were ready.
Like many women, Bobbi thought she first had to have every qualification box checked. But we all know that people often get promoted based on their potential – not only on what they’ve done. Bobbi says she would have never applied for the SES if she didn’t have people who mentored her, who recognized her leadership potential, and urged her to apply. Now she’s paying that forward. Among its efforts to encourage more women to move into the SES, USDA has incorporated a blind application in its SES hiring process. From 2008 to 2016, the percentage of women in the SES at that agency increased by nearly 50 percent. Let me give you that number again. From 2008 to 2016, the number of women in the SES at USDA increased by nearly 50 percent – from 94 women in 2008 to 140 in 2016.

The third story I want to share to illustrate our progress in creating a diverse workforce involves veterans. Our veterans enrich the work we do every day. I want to tell you about one veteran working at OPM, Dan Thibodeau. Dan not only inspires us by the great job he does as a leader of USAJOBS – which I’ll talk more about in a few minutes. A former Marine Corps sergeant, Dan also inspires us by how he continues to honor his comrades who fell in battle.
On any day in the halls of OPM headquarters, Dan can be seen accompanied by Frasier, a black Labrador retriever Dan is training to become a service dog with Warrior Canine Connection. Frasier is named after another sergeant who was tragically killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2007. Dan is emblematic of the thousands of veterans who have decided to continue serving their country, even after doing so in uniform.

Owning Our Talent
As I said, Dan is one of our leaders of USAJOBs, and that brings me to the final leadership strategy I want to talk about today – owning our talent. We all know that the gateway to the Federal workforce is USAJOBS. In order for us to find the best talent to fulfill agency missions, we knew we needed to transform that website. We needed to move from being just a job board to a career exploration portal where applicants could match their skills with the work that needs to be done, and, managers could find the individuals with the skills they need.
I believe what made the revamp of USAJOBS successful is the fundamental approach our OPM team took. We listened. The team did not approach the project with pre-conceived notions about what job applicants “needed” or what managers “should” expect to glean from the resumes on the site. We reached out to users. We held focus groups. We did one-on-one interviews. We consulted with hiring managers. We mined the tickets from the help desk, all with the idea of making changes that would create a user-friendly site.
Users were clear in their feedback. We needed to make the site easier to navigate. We needed to make it easier for candidates to follow the progress of their applications. We needed to provide better ways to update and save resumes. We have done all that. If you haven’t looked at recently,

I urge you to check it out.

For managers, we have been piloting an Agency Talent Portal, where those charged with hiring can mine resumes for talent. This portal already has more than 2 million searchable resumes and 1,000 users. OPM expects to bring it beyond the pilot phase early next year.
Owning your talent is at the heart of the Hiring Excellence Campaign that I expect most of you in this room – or colleagues in your agency – have either participated in or heard a great deal about. The Hiring Excellence Campaign is all about bringing together HR specialists and the managers and supervisors who need to fill vacant positions. The goal is to promote collaboration in the hiring process in order to find the best talent to fulfill the important missions of the Federal Government. The campaign held workshops in 22 cities with participants from 45 agencies. Our after-action reports showed that 92 percent of participants rated the workshops positively and nearly three-quarters of them said they have applied what they learned from the workshops in their hiring efforts.

Human capital has to be owned by those responsible for leading the mission, by program leaders.
I’ve talked a lot in the past few years about the need for leaders throughout the Federal government to be tech savvy and to not leave cybersecurity and information technology hygiene just to the CIOs. The same is true for the talent we need to bring in, develop, and keep in the Federal government. Leaders must take responsibility for building the right team, managing that team’s performance, giving clear and candid feedback about where performance is strong as well as where and how it can be improved. Leaders have to own their talent.


Merit System Principles
The last thing I want to mention to you today concerns the bedrock values that make the Federal workforce so special. I’m talking about the core merit system principles that have long stood as the foundation of this nation’s civil service system.
Underpinning these principles is a focus on actually hiring people based on an objective evaluation of their capabilities and qualifications – that is on merit. These principles, done right, enable us to bring in the highly qualified talent we need.

That objectivity also means anybody with the qualifications for a particular position can be considered and that we welcome applicants from every community of this nation. These principles have stood the test of time. The challenge for all of us going forward is to adapt them to a 21st Century world.
As I prepare to leave government in January, I want you to know that I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had to serve this President, this nation, and all the dedicated, talented, and committed people who come to work every day to serve the American public. Everyone in this room knows that the strength of the Federal Government’s ability to deliver on its mission depends on the quality, commitment, and dedication of the Federal workforce.

As we turn the keys over to a new team on Inauguration Day, I am confident that OPM is committed to continuing to serve all its customers – from Federal employees, retirees and their families, to agencies across government to our partners in the private sector. I am equally confident that as we embark on the transition to new Executive Branch leadership over the next several months, you will each do your best to make the handoff a smooth one. I also know that the continuity of the Federal service will be in your most capable hands.
Those of you who know me know that I never want to let an opportunity to go by without suggesting specific action items that you can take to implement the strategies I’ve talked about today. So here’s my ask: Work with your program leads to figure out what talent they need and to be creative and innovative in ways of attracting, assessing, managing, and developing this talent. Use and urge your leaders to use the data on to drill down into employee engagement. Make the work of attracting, developing, and retaining the talent you need a partnership with the new leadership coming in.

Finally, let me say what an honor it has been to work alongside the talented men and women at OMB, at OPM, and with the incredible group of Chief Human Capital Officers who provide leadership and guidance throughout the Federal Government. Thank you for the support you have shown me, and that I know you will continue to show the committed career leaders and employees at the Office of Personnel Management. Thank you.