Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, is working to improve federal hiring practices, bring a new generation into government, provide better services to federal employees and retirees, and tout the important work of the civil service.
Cobert spoke about these issues and her efforts to deal with a major data breach at the agency in an interview with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It’s Public Service Recognition Week. What do you think managers and senior agency leaders should be doing to show their appreciation for federal employees?
A: I think Public Service Recognition Week is a terrific opportunity for managers and leaders to do what we all are hopefully doing every single day—thank the members of the federal workforce for what they do to deliver for the American people. Frankly, I think it’s also a terrific opportunity for managers and leaders to make sure they’re telling their friends, neighbors and families who aren’t in the federal government a great story about someone in the government who did something terrific.
Q: What should the government be doing to attract young people into public service?
A: When there are surveys about millennials, you see they have a real commitment to their communities and public service. Our role at OPM, working with our agency partners, is to help individuals understand how a career in federal service will enable them to make contributions in a significant way and at scale.
People come to the public sector because they want to serve. We’ve got to help people understand how they can do that. We’ve got to make that easier. There are a number of agencies that have programs allowing for loan repayment for federal service. That is really valuable. We have to do those kinds of things and really make our value proposition and the opportunity more clear.
Q: What changes would you like to see regarding federal personnel practices?
A: One of the ways in which we are working to attract great talent is our Hiring Excellence Campaign. This campaign brings human resource leaders and hiring managers together in a partnership to understand better ways to hire terrific, high-quality and diverse applicants. I’ve seen it in the private sector and I know it can work here too.
Bringing talent in is not just the job of HR. The individuals leading an acquisition team or a mission delivery team or scientific team have the insight about the skills they need. It’s their job to participate and make sure they’re getting the people they need, and it’s the job of the HR leaders to help them do that.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge at OPM?
A: It starts with arriving at OPM in July 2015. The challenge at that point was helping the agency continue its response to the data breach of information on 21.5 million people, to continue to strengthen the security of our systems, help the individuals who had been impacted by those incidents and get the identity theft protection services in place. That was job one when I arrived here last summer.
We now have perimeter protections in our firewall for our workforce and we’ve got tools in place to inspect traffic going back and forth. We’ve made a bunch of changes in the CIO’s office, bringing on some terrific senior leadership from inside the federal workforce as well as bringing on a cybersecurity adviser from the private sector.
Q: What are your priorities given that there is a relatively short window left before the end of this administration?
A: We are going to continue to work on recruiting and developing the talent of our world-class federal workforce. We also have a really diverse set of customers—from retirees and their families to dependents of federal employees—to whom we provide health benefits. We’re continuing to think about how we enhance customer service and improve our operational excellence. We are focusing on delivering those services in a way that is sustainable and institutionalized.
Q: Was there a mistake you made during your career that taught you an important lesson?
A: I can think of instances where I didn’t raise my hand to take on an assignment or to step up and lead something because I thought somebody was more qualified than I was. I didn’t always recognize that the person who was making that decision was not looking just at what I had done, but at my potential to do more. So the mistake was sort of hanging back and waiting sometimes, versus stepping in there quicker.
Q: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
A: I once led a backpacking trip with 10 people in the middle of a hurricane where we got to spend the night in the woods with the trees literally crashing down around us. The only damage was that we were soaked at the end. Our tents didn’t work in the rain. And I can say that I am now an expert at repairing blistered feet on backpacking trips.