Obama Management Chief: Senior Execs Must Set Tone for Better Performance

OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert Kristoffer Tripplaar

The Obama administration has shrunk the agency real property footprint by 20 million square feet, “or the equivalent of three and a half Pentagons,” in the words of Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. Cobert cited that as one reason she is “excited” about progress and momentum toward a modernized, efficient government.

“Smarter information technology, efficient customer service, the [White House] U.S. digital service, and new talent and approaches are combining to deliver [results] in a modern way that is agile,” Cobert told hundreds of federal employees Thursday at the Excellence in Government conference put on by Government Executive Media Group.

As many as 47 percent of IT purchasers report that timelines have been cut by 21 days, she said, and agencies have released 67,000 new open data sets so that “people can see how government works and help start new businesses.”

Cobert stressed the importance of the Senior Executive Service in “setting the tone” for improved performance and leveraging new talent in government. She nodded to the administration’s decision to speed agency designation of priority goals to take advantage of them earlier in the budget process. And she touted the value of making benchmarked performance data “part of the regular order of things.”

“The more we use data the better data will be – it’s a cycle,” said Cobert, citing her prior experience at McKinsey & Co. The current ability to track real-time visits to government websites, for example, provides a digital analysis of where users of services such as Social Security “are getting stuck,” she said. “If we give good data, someone will want to keep getting good data, which helps run the agency.”

Making government work better, though important to President Obama in what he calls his “fourth quarter, is “not the focus of the political debate,” Cobert acknowledged. “But it’s hard to argue that better IT, customer service and smart ideas are partisan.” Her office’s timeline for reforms “does not stop at 2017.”

One way agencies are embedding performance management is by designating a career senior executive to monitor each priority goal, Cobert noted, adding that employee engagement measures are now part of senior executives’ own performance reviews.

Strategic reviews, another tool familiar to Cobert from her “prior life,” can be “fabulous when used by a leader to drive operations,” especially when integrated into the rest of the process, she said. She praised the plan with five strategic goals used at the Commerce Department under Secretary Penny Pritzker.

To modernize the Senior Executive Service, the administration is “focusing on onboarding” and streamlining hiring as it awaits more recommendations from members. Pilot efforts to bring in outsiders quickly for short stays are under way at the Health and Human Services and Energy departments, and at the Social Security Administration.  

“Hiring reform is fundamental,” Cobert said. “You can’t delegate hiring to the Human Resources Department, which can be fabulous with help and support, but people have to own their own hiring.”

The retirement wave and the need to recruit more Millennial generation employees require that agencies “make it easier for young people to come in,” she said, drawing on her own daughter’s attitudes. “We can talk about a career in public service, but they’re thinking in increments, what’s next?” she said. Programs such as the Presidential Innovation Fellows that give young professionals a taste of government can help “change the mindset,” since most of those fellows have “got the bug,” and will stay in government if given enough professional development opportunity.

 Asked for successes in performance management, Cobert praised the Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs departments’ joint program to reduce veterans’ homelessness, which has decreased by one third overall, and has been completely eliminated in Phoenix, she said. She also cited the Transportation Security Administration for raising the more-convenient airline passenger pre-check screening from 19 percent of passengers to 46 percent. “It provides better security and better customer [service], and it’s cheaper,” she said.

Another favorable measure is the user wait-time at the once-troubled Healthcare.gov website for registering for health insurance. “Healthcare.gov 2.0 got the screen time down from 21 to nine minutes” on average, Cobert said.

Gains in performance management “will continue only if we keep up the discipline,” Cobert said, “and hold people accountable for delivering.”

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