Keeping OPM on its Toes

Driving learning and development for a federal workforce of 2.1 million employees is no easy task, but innovation and online learning is helping the OPM’s chief learning officer do just that.  Driving learning and development for a federal workforce of 2.1 million employees is no easy task, but innovation and online learning is helping the…

Ask Sydney Smith-Heimbrock what her preferred title is, and she will respond with a good natured laugh. Ten minutes later, when she reaches the end of her laundry list of roles, that laugh makes total sense.
Officially, Smith-Heimbrock is the deputy associate director of strategic workforce planning within the Office of Personnel Management, the government agency charged with setting human resources policies for the federal workforce. The agency recently made headlines for a massive cybersecurity breach involving the theft of 5.6 million fingerprints from federal databases.
In total, the social security numbers and addresses of more than 21 million former and current government employees have been compromised.
She barely gets that mouthful out before chuckling again. “That doesn’t mean much to many people,” she said. “It’s a very broad role that encompasses a number of different pieces.”
But once she breaks it down, the gravity of her position and the creative problem-solving she must employ to drive learning and development within a federal workforce of 2.1 million people spread out across the globe is serious, regardless of her title. 
Smith-Heimbrock is responsible for anticipating changes in the federal workforce. Based on her assessment, she develops strategies that 438 government agencies can use to close skills gaps and develop talent. She fulfills a similar role internally as the OPM’s chief learning officer, where she sets corporate learning strategy. Add to that her position as executive director of the OPM’s innovation lab, a think tank housed in the bowels of the Theodore Roosevelt Building in Washington, D.C., and she has quite a lot on her plate.
“In my mind, they are very closely connected,” Smith-Heimbrock said. “The idea of conducting foresight in the specific way that we are now doing it is relatively new and requires innovative thinking and requires the willingness to take risks where we may not have very clear current quantitative data.” 
Risk-taking is not a characteristic typically associated with the federal government, but in Smith-Heimbrock’s case, that trait spurred her to launch a governmentwide online learning program to close skills gaps and help federal workers develop and rise through the ranks. 
“My passion through my entire career has been looking at the role government can and should play in enabling a competitive society,” she said. “My learning philosophy is that investing in our people is the No. 1 way to make sure our government can deliver efficiently. Online learning helps achieve that goal.”
Stay (Human) Centered   
Experiences shape a person. In Smith-Heimbrock’s case, her many academic experiences helped develop the learning philosophy she executes at the OPM. Her academic journey began at Stanford University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English and French literature in 1988. During this time, the information technology industry was beginning to boom in nearby Silicon Valley. 
“The kinds of IT innovations that we now take for granted were really starting to heat up back then,” she said. “My willingness to take risks comes from having been nurtured in a creative environment early on in my academic career.”
The intersection with government work came after she completed her master’s degree in English and textual studies at Syracuse University. She accepted a position as an education intern with the U.S. Labor Department, where she worked to reform vocational training center curricula geared toward disadvantaged youth. 
That exposure to government policy led her to the London School of Economics, where she focused on social policy and administration and how she could improve overall government effectiveness. 
“I started considering questions such as how to build government institutions that are able to protect us from a range of threats while still enabling the business to develop in order to create a competitive society,” she said. 
The collection of her academic experiences, which culminated with a doctorate in political science from Miami University of Ohio in 2010, along with her concurrent roles in government lead her to the conclusion that people were the answer to an improved government system. For the government to be more effective, it’s employees would need to learn to solve problems better. 
Smith-Heimbrock’s solution was human-centered design, a problem-solving approach that focuses first on the person and ends with a solution to that individual or group’s problem.  
Smith-Heimbrock and four colleagues worked on a project known as Human-Centered Design for Innovation that created a curriculum to build innovation skills, including human-centered design, facilitation and leadership skills. The byproduct of that effort was the OPM Innovation Lab. 
The lab’s purpose is to teach federal employees about human-centered design while giving them the space and opportunity to practice it, Smith-Heimbrock said. One of the initiatives she is most proud of happened recently and involved an overhaul of the school lunch application program through which families qualify for federally subsidized school lunches. 
The U.S. Agriculture Department noticed that many families that need the federal subsidy were not receiving it, thanks to a cumbersome application process. Smith-Heimbrock and her team brought USDA staff into the Innovation Lab to learn how human-centered design could solve their problem. 
“What came out of that learning was a new streamlined application for families that was much more sensitive to diversity and differences in culture and capability among the demographics filing for federal assistance,” Smith-Heimbrock said.
The initiative also has saved the government money. The edits USDA staff members made cut the application down from five pages to just one, which lowers print costs, transaction time to process the application and increases applicant satisfaction.
Online Learning Closes the Gap 
In March, President Barack Obama launched TechHire, an initiative aimed at closing the skills gap in the technology industry. It commits $100 million in grants to train low-skilled individuals and connect them to programs that support accelerated and work-based learning in partnership with employers.
Closing the skills gap has been a priority throughout the Obama presidency, Smith-Heimbrock said. As a result, she has been working in collaboration with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, a body charged with supporting OPM in its mission to set human resources policy for the federal government, to identify mission critical operations. Cybersecurity tops the list. 
Smith-Heimbrock turned to online learning as a solution given the fact that 85 percent of the federal workforce is located outside of Washington, D.C. 
“As we continue to evolve towards greater workforce flexibilities where employees can be distributed across wider geographic areas and still contribute to the mission because of telework, we have had to quickly put in place the kinds of e-learning solutions our employees need in order to access development,” Smith-Heimbrock said. 
This need spawned a partnership with the University of Maryland and, more recently in April, Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, to develop an online learning component that federal employees across the world can access. 
Champlain College in particular is recognized as a center of excellence for cybersecurity and is designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the National Security Agency, Homeland Security Department and Air Force. The alliance with the OPM is the 57th such partnership the college has formed with various institutions like AT&T Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc.
As part of its “truEd” program, federal employees and their spouses can pursue online degrees for up to 70 percent off the regular tuition rates. Employees pay on a subscription model that typically costs about $250 a month. The subscription-based pricing model determines pricing on the tier an enrollee chooses as opposed to paying by credit hour. 
This allows participants to put their studies on hold for a while if necessary and jump back in when they can so they don’t have to go into any debt upfront, said Jayson Boyers, vice president and managing director of continuing professional studies at Champlain.
Federal workers are able to obtain bachelor’s or master’s degrees for about $12,000 to $13,000, or obtain a certificate through a yearlong program for about $3,000. 
The decision to partner with Champlain College was based on more than just the pricing. Smith-Heimbrock and the OPM wanted a partner who could meet its unique workforce needs.
“We only accept nontraditional students,” Boyers said. “The classes are built around applying theory, not memorization, which is the case with most traditional college experiences.” 
The immediacy of online learning is another aspect employers such as the OPM value in the truEd program, said Mika Nash, academic dean for Champlain College’s online division. 
 “Employers and employees appreciate the fact that everything these folks are learning they can immediately apply to the workplace,” Nash said. “They’re finding relevance right away. Students feel like they are contributing really quickly to their organizations, and that helps both employees and employers find value in the experience.” 
Guaranteeing Value
The partnership with Champlain College was intended to be more than a benefit to lure potential employees into the federal workforce. Smith-Heimbrock wanted it to serve her larger goal of creating a competitive society. To do that, the workforce needs to be engaged. 
“We know from extensive research conducted by both OPM and other think tanks that organizational effectiveness requires engaged employees,” Smith-Heimbrock said. “To engage our people, we need to walk the talk and provide them with opportunities to grow both their professional skills for their current job, as well as provide the opportunity to progress in their careers.”  
Champlain does not create specific courses for specific clients. Instead, to keep students engaged, the OPM and Champlain College work hard to keep communication lines open. 
“Frankly, that is always the key in any kind of effective partnership,” Smith-Heimbrock said. “This is a very normal place for us to be where we’re critically dependent on other organizations to achieve our vision, so we know how to collaborate effectively. Communication is always the No. 1 thing that keeps that collaboration going.” 
The communication happens in biweekly webinars to review course content, in person meetings between Champlain College executives and the OPM as well as regular phone communication.
“There is a real passion that I’ve found in these conversations with OPM’s chief learning officers,” Nash said. “There is a real desire to build and support and develop. Often when you’re working with private companies you have people in human resources that are managing the relationship. The difference with the federal government is there have been rules created specifically to support employees in this way. This makes for these vibrant conversations that get us to place where they’re actively getting their employees to figure out what the next step is for them and to grow.” 
While it’s important that the OPM takes the initiative to express what it wants from an online learning program, it is equally vital that Champlain College works to keep employees engaged and completing the courses. To that end, Champlain has a quality assurance program that helps ensure faculty and students are actively engaged in their course work. 
“We don’t ever want students to feel alone in the classroom,” Nash said. “That is the biggest fear of the online experience. The goal for us is completion.” 
To meet Champlain’s goal of keeping class sizes small, there are no more than 25 students per course. There is also a system that measures professor engagement with students through emails opened and answered. 
In terms of course structure, students are paired together to complete assignments to create a sense of peer learning and a stronger connection to the material, Boyers said. 
Though the program launched in April, Smith-Heimbrock has specific metrics in mind to help prove the risk she took is worth the government’s time and money.
In addition to basic stats, such as how many employees signed up and completed a course, she’s also interested in tracking talent development through employee feedback on whether the skills they learned online helped them do their jobs better. 
At the end of the day, online learning is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the future of learning at OPM. Smith-Heimbrock’s ultimate goal is keeping the agencies focused externally so they don’t fall behind in their learning needs. 
“I’ve been around the federal government long enough to know that we tend to get a little myopic within our own agencies,” she said. “As chief learning officers really come into their own as strategic leaders within organizations, they will be focused externally and more broadly to make sure we’re building a workforce that can compete with the private sector. We need to leverage our resources to solve the problems that we all have in common.”