It must have been a relief for Beth Cobert.

Under different circumstances, Tuesday’s Senate hearing on federal employee travel and convention spending could have been an opportunity for grandstanding politicians to rake over the coals officials from an administration that has had its share of conference scandals.

This was Cobert’s first congressional hearing as the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management. Two things were going for her: She had good news and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is a more civil place than its House counterpart.

She pleased senators with news that travel costs for fiscal 2013 were $3 billion less than in 2010. Curiously, OMB could not say less than what amount and Cobert refused to take reporters questions after the hearing. In the wake of controversial Internal Revenue Service and General Services Administration conferences, OMB required agencies in May 2012 to cut travel spending by 30 percent from the 2010 levels.

Yet, Cobert was careful not to throw all employee travel under the bus.

“It is critical to recognize the important role that conferences play in the federal government,” she told the committee. Sometimes having federal employees meet face-to-face with taxpayers and colleagues “can be the most efficient and cost-effective means for carrying out government-sponsored activities.”

During an era of cut, cut, cut, Cobert offered this caution:

“It is also imperative that our efforts not undercut or prevent agencies from achieving their mission or create new significant cost in an effort to be compliant with conference review and reporting requirements.”

Congress plans to vote this week on a $1.1 trillion spending bill with provisions that would control travel and conference spending. The bill would prohibit spending not in compliance with OMB’s May 2012 directive. The legislation also provides a 1 percent raise for federal wage-grade employees, an increase that seemed uncertain last week. It also funds a 1 percent increase for General Schedule staff members and continues restraints from fiscal 2009 on contracting out government work.

Cobert handled her congressional debut like a pro, directly responding to senators’ concerns.

She also managed to sidestep questions about the administration’s stance on legislation that would set limits on conference spending without upsetting its sponsor, the panel’s well-prepared and probing top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.). Her spokesman later said that the administration has not taken a position on the bill.

In her first OMB interview last week, Cobert talked to the Federal Diary about the administration’s positions on a variety of federal workplace issues:

Low employee morale: “The decline in satisfaction, willingness to refer the federal government as a place to work, has declined in a way that any manager, any leader in an organization would be concerned about. At the same time . . . employees remain committed to trying to be able to deliver against their job every day. They care about mission, they are still engaged, they are willing to put forth the extra effort it takes to get things done. . . . One of the things that’s . . . extremely powerful in the Federal Employee Veiwpoint Survey is the ability to use it as a management tool. . . . How can we transfer those best practices [from high-ranking agencies]? We think that by focusing on learning from those lessons we can help morale.”

Administration’s federal workplace strategy: “One of the messages that came through loud and clear is the importance of the federal workforce as we think about the management agenda. . . . There’s a huge commitment to think about how do we recognize, deliver and ensure that the federal workers . . . great people . . . are able to do their best work. Thinking about that question and the people element has been and will continue to be a core part of the second-term management agenda. It’s a topic that’s been talked about in all the working sessions that we’ve had from the Cabinet . . . [with] virtual unanimity that says we can think about many other initiatives to manage the federal government well, but without us being able to capi­tal­ize and have the right talent in the federal workforce, our other initiatives won’t be successful, and so it is absolutely at its core.”

Administration review of security clearance procedures: “The administration takes this review very seriously. . . . We are working through the process in a very active cross-agency effort. . . . It’s premature to say what our conclusions are.”

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