Cobert to Trump: Focus on ‘Holistic’ Civil Service Reforms, Not Hiring Freeze

“I do not think a hiring freeze is an effective way to manage the federal government workforce for a better performance or a better efficiency," acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said. “I do not think a hiring freeze is an effective way to manage the federal government workforce for a better performance or a better efficiency," acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

President Obama’s federal personnel chief is optimistic the reforms the administration has put into place are so ingrained in the way agencies do business that they will carry on well into the future, though she expressed concern President-elect Trump’s proposed hiring freeze will undermine the smooth functioning of government.

Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert said in an interview Thursday the Trump administration should wait until it gets into office and can fully assess where specific needs are before making workforce decisions. The number of federal government employees has not materially grown for years, she said -- it remains about the same size as it was in 1966 -- and workers across agencies are doing “critical operating jobs every single day.”

“I do not think a hiring freeze is an effective way to manage the federal government workforce for a better performance or a better efficiency,” Cobert said. “I spent a lot of time in the private sector and for an entity as large and diverse as the federal government, across the board actions like that, in my mind, are not an effective way of figuring out where do we need to make changes and how do we make them.”

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Cobert noted she has not had conversations with Trump’s team about the freeze, and only knows “what I read about it in the paper” (she maintained the transition is going smoothly and professionally, but policy issues have not come up). She advised the incoming administration that jobs such as protecting the nuclear stockpile, caring for veterans and delivering Social Security payments should not go unfilled.

“We need people to do that work and when vacancies happen you have to find a way to fill them,” Cobert said. Trump has said the freeze will exempt national security and public health positions, though he has yet to spell out further details.

Cobert noted the current administration’s progress in making the federal government a model employer, improving the personnel system, modernizing processes and systems, and operational efficiencies as its top achievements. She said the issues OPM works on are “not partisan” and would therefore survive past Jan. 20 when Trump is sworn in.

“You need great people,” she said. “It’s hard to argue that one.”

OPM took pains to work with both political and career employees when instituting reforms such as the use of data, boosting cybersecurity, focusing on engagement and improving hiring, Cobert said, making them more institutionalized across government. By making the information from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey more specific and actionable, for example, OPM has made the data vital to every agency's core mission.

“We have embedded employee engagement into the fabric of agencies,” Cobert said, noting it is a measure in every Senior Executive Service member’s performance appraisal. “There’s data. It is visible to the public, it is visible to leadership, it is visible to everyone at multiple levels inside an organization. That’s how you make something stick.”

Acting director since July 2015, Cobert said she has focused on making initiatives not merely ephemeral changes by having people “own them.” Through her Hiring Excellence campaign, OPM has trained thousands of employees on better recruiting, onboarding and retention strategies, she said. While she expressed confidence spreading and entrenching practices such as those will require them to continue, they will also “continue to evolve,” she said. 

The federal government’s job posting website, USAJOBS, is “fundamentally different” now than it was before the Obama administration, Cobert said. The team behind it has for nearly two years rolled out changes every six-to-eight weeks and has an action plan to continue the changes into 2017.

While Cobert was never officially confirmed into her position, she functioned as if she had been; she was named acting director, she said, “So I acted!”

She advised the next administration to focus on training managers to have tough conversations with employees and to take advantage of authorities already on the books rather than to pass new laws that undermine merit system principles. The Trump administration should “holistically” examine how to reform the civil service, rather than “looking at it in piece parts,” she said. The president-elect should consider how to maintain a career civil service “in light of a world that is very different” and in which employees more often move around throughout their careers, she said.

Cobert also recommended the Trump administration continue the Federal Labor-Management Relations Council, saying it provides a forum for agency leadership to hear from the rank-and-file on ideas for how to better deliver services and carry out the mission.

Finally, the acting OPM director recommended Trump himself engage in carrying out his ideas, saying President Obama and his aides always focused on impact in her meetings and conversations with them.

“The president’s appreciation of the importance of driving things all the way through execution is absolutely fundamental,” Cobert said. “Good policies are fine. If they don’t get executed, they’re paper.” 

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