OPM’s 99 Problems – And Cyber’s Just One

We all heard about the recent and disastrous cyber breaches in federal government. In April, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) discovered that the personnel data of 4.2 million current and former Federal government employees had been stolen. Birthdays, home addresses, and Social Security numbers all were affected.

One of the biggest problems that Beth Cobert, Acting Director of OPM, faces is managing the government’s personnel and making sure the government gets the future talent it needs. On the DorobekINSIDER program, Professor Don Kettl of the Public Policy School at the University of Maryland sat down with Chris Dorobek to discuss the multiple problems facing OPM and federal government in addition to addressing cybersecurity.

According to Kettl, Cobert just walked into the toughest job in Washington.

The Toughest Job
Every govie must be feeling for Beth Cobert right now. She has to address the cyber breach, reassure the American people, reorganize OPM to function properly and effectively, and rebuild trust in federal government.

“That means helping rebuild the morale on the inside,” Kettl said. “It means finding a quick communication strategy for the Feds out there who have been affected so they know who’s been affected and so that privacy protection can be provided. That’s the cornerstone of trying to rebuild trust.”

Kettl added, “But the other thing she has to do, with not much time, is think about the strategic human workforce management question. This is the question of how OPM wasn’t better prepared for managing data questions and finding how other agencies are also struggling with the same issues. It’s thinking about why we don’t have the right people in the right places to achieve the mission.”

Her job, and govies’ jobs in general are to focus on realigning the federal government’s human capital with the jobs that have to be done.

It’s Not Easy Being Govies
With the recent OPM cyber breach, federal government has a trust problem, particularly in retaining citizen trust. Government’s less than adequate responses have made being a public servant even harder.

“Tens of millions of federal employees and their families have had their personal information stolen,” said Kettl. “Members of Congress have called into question the competence of OPM in allowing the cyber breach to happen- or in figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

But the biggest problem is finding the federal talent to address these problems. “We simply have lost the ability to connect Feds with the talents we need as well as what kind of agencies need them. We also seem to have trouble identifying what we need to get the federal government’s job done.”

It’s Time to Blow up HR and Build Something New
This was the title of a recent Harvard Business Review issue, which highlights the need for all sectors, especially government, to rethink management. Some people say that, for government, the answer is downsizing the federal workforce while others argue against the idea with the growing retiring workforce.

“If you’re trying to find ways to balance the federal budget and save money, we probably need to invest more in making sure we don’t spend money improperly,” Kettl said. “In some cases, we may want to hire more Feds or make do with a few less. But what we want to do needs to be matched with the decision rather than adhere to arbitrary ceilings, targets, and decisions.”

Addressing all the Problems
In addition to rebuilding citizen and government morale as well as better managing in government, Kettl suggests reminding federal employees why they joined government in the first place.

“There’s a reason why every single Fed decided to work for the federal government. In almost all cases, it wasn’t simply to get a paycheck,” he said. “There really is an important public service they’re here to perform. We just need to make sure the mission of the agency drives their activities.”

Kettl suggests using the level of rhetoric coming for the 2016 elections as opportunities to strive for better. “The level of rhetoric is going to be so bizarre that it creates actual opportunities for people in government to figure out how better to do the job.”

It may be tough being in public service now, but, as Kettl highlighted, there’s still hope for the federal government getting back on track. It’s just a matter of refocusing on why we’re all here in the first place- to serve the people.


Photo Credit: Flickr/GotCredit

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