OMB management nominee offers peek into priorities, style

Wednesday - 10/2/2013, 7:38pm EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Beth Cobert doesn't have the government credentials to be the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

But lawmakers believe the senior consultant from McKinsey and Co. may just be the type of person the government needs anyway.

Beth Cobert

Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Wednesday Cobert brings the real world experience that is needed in government in this day and age, where the DDM's plate is full between budget cuts, the renewed focus on customer service, the mandate to increase program efficiencies and the need to revitalize an aging and frustrated workforce.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, said he would support Cobert's nomination to be OMB's deputy director for management.

"I think you have a great understanding of what the real problems are," he said. "The Office of Management and Budget is just that — it's an office of budget and management and too often it's about the budget and not the management. I welcome you here to today and applaud your sacrifice and willingness to do it. My hope would be we would have more experienced people from the private sector fulfill positions such as this one."

Coburn said Cobert could bring her expertise and guidance after spending more than 29 years in the private sector to highlight the areas that are failing with an eye toward fixing them. He said to fix the assorted problems in government one has to start with good management.

Management approach

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also praised Cobert's background, saying the government needs hundreds of people like her.

Johnson asked Cobert to explain her process with McKinsey where a small team would try to make large-scale changes.

"Let me try and describe some principles about how I've tried to work at McKinsey. At McKinsey, we have a number of principles that underlie our approach to any problem," Cobert said. "One is being clear of what's the objective we are trying to deliver against. What kind of performance are we trying to deliver for customers, for the business and for the people working in that business? So we start with a clear objective because that's the objective that will drive our recommendations."

Cobert said the next step is to look at the data and form hypotheses. Then, the team would look at financial information, market data, customer feedback and any sorts of data that will help understand the costs and benefits of the possible solutions to the problem.

Finally, Cobert said she would build a set of recommendations and attach metrics to them to measure how they are working. She said the metrics will show whether the approach is working or if something needs to change.

In many ways, Cobert described the administration's methodology for driving performance and creating a new data-driven culture over the last five years.

The White House has pushed agencies to make data-driven decisions, set performance-based goals and measure progress against those goals.

Wearing the CPO hat

President Barack Obama nominated Cobert in September to be the DDM, taking over for Jeff Zients who left that role in May. Zients has since been named as the President's economic adviser.

Cobert offered a small glimpse into her goals, as well as her approach to being DDM and chief performance officer (CPO). In her questions for the record, she confirmed she would wear the second hat as the government's CPO.

For example, she said part of the way she would enhance government management is by focusing on the four pillars of the second term management agenda detailed by President Barack Obama: effectiveness, efficiency, economy and people.

"I've worked with clients on better deployment of technology, as I mentioned, trying to make the standard parts of the technology more efficient and to use technology tools to enable them to deliver better customer service," she said. "I've worked with companies on procurement problems, trying to help them buy smarter, to buy what they need at the right prices and to make sure they are buying the right things, and what they need to serve or deliver against their goals and not more."

She also worked on a range of issues to strengthen a performance management system where the goal is to generate a mindset of continuous improvement.

Cobert said the goal of continuous improvement is for employees to use "data and [learn] from that data to help make performance better and to build a mindset and culture where the individuals doing their jobs everyday are thinking about how they can do their work better."

She also offered several other specific instances where she helped transform technology or helped a company manage their procurements better.

"I've done some work with a large business services firm looking at their business expenditures," Cobert said. "And in that case, we framed it as a function of looking at what we called the factory, how did they get their basic infrastructure working well? To be reliable, to be efficient and to meet their business needs as their business was growing. What could they do themselves? What were places where they too could consolidate their data centers or look to cloud based solutions as an alternative to building systems themselves?

Oversight recommendations need attention

She also offered a procurement example where she helped a company take advantage of its buying power through standardization of processes or contracts.

"So you think about what you are buying. How are you leveraging your buying power? And how are you doing the right thing?" Cobert said.

Cobert also said PortfolioStat, TechStat and similar initiatives are an important way to get control over federal programs.

Several lawmakers wanted her assurance, which they received, that she would work with the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general to pay more attention to open management recommendations.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee, said the Homeland Security Department, for example, has 455 open GAO and IG recommendations that need management attention.

Cobert said she will make it priority to find out what areas are making progress, which ones are not, and why. She also said she would explore what roadblocks are in the way of progress and figure out how to remove them.

"There is a lot to learn from the reports from GAO, understanding what's there and understanding the root causes of the problems," she said. "I do believe that there is an opportunity to apply these lessons from the private sector. I think it takes real discipline. I think it takes being consistent and having clear goals, holding people responsible and being consistent and coming back. That disciplined performance management is one way to get there."

Waiting game

Despite broad support from the committee, Cobert is likely to sit on the sidelines a bit longer, at least until the government shutdown and debt ceiling debates are solved.

Carper said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate would not debate or vote on any nominations during the shutdown. That decision frustrated Coburn.

"To me that would be indicative of the whole mindset of the problem in Washington today. The entire government is not shutdown. The Senate is not shutdown," Coburn said. "The fact we would not process a nominee that is important and vital to establishing what we need at OMB seems to me like you are shooting at your own feet."

So as Cobert waits for her votes before the committee and full Senate, Steve VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, will continue to be the acting DDM.

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