In a time of pandemic, serving as the space agency’s chief human capital officer presents unprecedented challenges.
Jane Datta leads the human resources operation of the federal agency whose mission is to explore space, but does so with her feet planted firmly on the ground.
“NASA accomplishes its mission because of its talented people,” she says. But a key part of her job “is to balance the aspirational with grounded reality.”
Datta draws on nearly 30 years of experience in industry and government to maintain that balance. Her private sector experience includes a stint as an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and various personnel positions at United Technologies Corp. She has an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and a B.A. from Yale University.
Datta has served at NASA since 2007. She was director of the agency’s Workforce Policy, Planning and Analysis Division before becoming deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Human Capital Management. Datta was appointed chief human capital officer in February, just before the novel coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic.
Datta recently spoke to Government Executive’s Courtney Bublé about her time at the agency and what she has learned, especially about leading in an age of stay at home orders. Excerpts from that interview follow.
How would you characterize your management style?
NASA is an innovative organization with an evolving and complex set of missions, and my staff in the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer is dedicated to helping the NASA workforce and supporting the agency’s missions. For us to perform at our best, I believe I need to establish an environment that allows my people to be creative, explore ideas and try out new things.
Thus, my management style is to set a general direction for our work and give my team freedom to figure out how to move in that direction and integrate efforts across our many activities. I want to be connected to the work enough to appreciate some of the details involved so I can advocate for things we need, communicate what we are doing at the agency level, or make connections with stakeholders outside our organization.
I place a premium on authentic engagement and take time to recognize teams and individuals as they make progress, move our work forward, or achieve great things. I also make a point of getting to know my staff through small group and individual interactions. I believe I have an amazing team that feels valued, energized and safe to explore ideas, so we can do anything.
What approach do you take to the job?
The approach I take to the job is to never stand still. I need to be constantly reaching for more and better that can be turned into value for my team and for NASA. To do this, I have prioritized coalition building as a key approach for bringing knowledge and insight to OCHCO programs and for benefiting the workforce. For instance, I participate in forums with other CHCOs and chief human resources officers where we share best practices and learn from each other.
I was new in my role when COVID-19 emerged as a critical issue requiring massive intra- and interagency coordination. The accelerated requirement to assimilate information, create action plans and execute in alignment with the highest levels of government has enduring impact for me and for my team.
Another characteristic of my approach to the job is to balance the aspirational with grounded reality. I am fortunate to have an ambitious team that is rich in ideas about what we can achieve as a function. But we also need to understand where we are, and what we can practicably achieve, so that we continue to move forward.
What’s the best part of the job?
The people. I know this sounds simple, but it is true. I wake up every day wanting to work with the people in my function, in NASA leadership and in organizations we collaborate with across the agency.
A former colleague once mentioned he came to NASA thinking it was primarily a data-driven agency and departed realizing it was really a people-driven agency. I couldn’t agree more. I am also honored to be part of an agency leadership team that really puts people first.
What are some challenges in the federal hiring process?
NASA accomplishes its mission because of its talented people. This has never been truer as NASA works with U.S. companies and international partners to push the boundaries of human exploration to return to the moon, lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy and ultimately send humans to Mars. NASA has a 21st century program and yet, in many respects NASA still has the same 20th century personnel system that was operational during the Apollo era.
NASA OCHCO has conducted extensive research into the foundational challenges of the federal hiring process and its impact on the NASA mission. Some of the underlying issues include a slow and not applicant-friendly process, a position-based system based on static and repeatable work that does not resonate in today’s fluid marketplace for skills, and a non-competitive compensation structure.
Based on our findings, we are making changes and working toward a new, modern workforce system that emphasizes agility, acquires and deploys top talent rapidly, and aligns compensation and performance.
How do you work with labor unions?
NASA’s bargaining unit workforce is represented by either the American Federation of Government Employees or the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The rights provided to these unions come in two different forms. At the agency level, they have been granted national consultation rights. Consequently, NASA informs AFGE and IFPTE of any substantive change in conditions of employment proposed by the agency, and permits a reasonable time for them to present their views and recommendations regarding the changes. NASA considers these views and recommendations before taking final action. For the purposes of NCR, the unions have identified two representatives from both the AFGE and IFPTE to participate on a national council to administer their rights.
At the center level, NASA local unions, which reside at eight of our 10 centers, have been certified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority as the exclusive representative of bargaining unit employees. This allows the local unions to negotiate employment matters, including the terms of collective bargaining agreements, at each represented center. As a result, NASA is a party to ten CBAs, five with AFGE locals and five with IFPTE locals.
What is NASA's policy on telework?
We consider telework a strategic priority. We believe that with telework or remote work options, our workforce can more easily balance their work and personal responsibilities and access a greater variety of work assignment opportunities.
Telework has long been encouraged at NASA, and because we were early adopters of virtual collaboration, we were able to make the agency transition and maintain operational continuity through the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has your job changed to follow public health guidance during the coronavirus outbreak?
I was in my role for just six weeks when COVID-19 became a pandemic. I joined an agency team planning how we would respond to the emergency, and in a short time, we were dedicating most or all of our days to addressing the rapidly changing situation. Along with the team, we focused on how to keep employees safe, prioritize agency work and communicate, communicate, communicate.
Over the last several months, I have established clear priorities for OCHCO work, much of which continues despite the “new normal” of mandatory telework for my staff. For instance, we have continued to hire and onboard new employees. While in-person training activities have been delayed, we have created and implemented virtual supervisor training sessions on adapting to virtual work, ensuring employees are engaged and supported, and looking after ourselves in this challenging time.
Dealing with an emergency as unprecedented as this one has revealed what is possible that might have seemed improbable and required us to reset some of our expectations and patterns. My job is to ensure we leverage what we have learned to help us be more efficient and effective even after we return to normal operations.