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Acting Federal Personnel Chief Plans to Demand More Data

Staff of 6,000 at OPM "facing a lot of change," Weichert says.

Speaking 24-hours after her first day as acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, Margaret Weichert on Wednesday said she will be looking for “a ton of data” on recruiting people with 21st-century skill sets and for improving “general management activities.” 

Weichert—whose day job remains deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget—said she told the 6,000 staffers at OPM on Tuesday that they are “facing a lot of change.” Much of it is statutory, she added, citing the plan to move the agency’s background check operation to the Defense Department. Weichert was speaking to open-data industry enthusiasts at a conference put on by the nonprofit Data Foundation

She also said “she appreciates the professionalism of the team” at OPM.

Weichert, a holder of 14 patents as a private-sector payment software specialist, is in charge of five major offices within OMB. But her main public role before her sudden transfer to be acting OPM chief was implementing the president’s management agenda, which she told the open data conference “is a whole of government plan for what we focus on.”

In bringing out agencies’ commitment to “mission, service and stewardship,” Weichert said the Trump administration version announced in March will improve customer service so “it’s no longer a joke that you get good service from the government,” citing as an example the complexities of applying for Social Security.

When there is bureaucratic waste, she said, “that’s money that can’t be spent fighting forest fires in Montana, or allowing [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] a forward stance before a hurricane, or for funds that help vulnerable populations—veterans, children and women. We have all the data—we should be able to do more.”

Two of the management agenda’s three prongs are well known, Weichert said, pointing to the need to modernize outdated information technology infrastructure and improving exploitation of data so that it is “not an afterthought but an end outcome.”

Where she and other management agenda advocates get “stuck,” she said, is the third element—recruitment. “When I asked why we can’t do something, I was told, ‘We don’t have the right people leading this change, the right skill sets to lead the challenge.’ We don’t have a modern perspective.”

Part of the solution to that will be strategic use of data, Weichert said, noting that in the private sector, the pursuit of evidence though data for decision making is “a known thing—they don’t have a purpose-driven specialty of data, it’s wholistic.”

She said in her early weeks in government, she was “embarrassed” that some functions were “almost paralyzed” because people lacked “a common language on taxonomy, hygiene, and metadata, let alone” the ability to expand capability. For people on Capitol Hill, she said, “evidence-based means accountability and oversight,” but within OMB it means budget data on a case-by-case basis.

The “lack of common understanding” was frustrating because Weichert couldn’t quickly get data on a topic, say procurement, even from statutorily required reports. “I discovered that in a place that relies fundamentally on data, we didn’t even know what we had,” she said. 

But she said her cross-agency team has made “real progress” in pulling together people from the evidence-community, the management community and the risk compliance oversight community. Through her work on the President’s Management Council, she hopes to help people better understand the “bottoms-up” source of data. And she plans more “test and learn” pilot projects next year.

 Better data that is seen as an “asset,” she said, should be “the big thrust of the mission in government.” It’s better for meeting budget challenges, and “has the potential to grow the economy,” she said, citing the example of data on the economic benefits of mining on public lands. “The great thing about data is that it’s free, unconstrained by geography,” Weichert said.

She vowed to “showcase the power of open data and use these stories to help inform Congress and people across government of this paradigm, so we can continue to get the investment.”