A year in, Coba focused on state technology, workforce
SALEM — Katy Coba was the very public face of the department when she was director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. But as the state's chief operating officer Coba works behind the scenes of state government
The Eastern Oregon native says it's a bit of a change from her prior post leading the ODA — the "customer" has changed from farmers, ranchers and consumers of agricultural products to the enterprise of state government itself.
"But the principles and the way that I operate are very much the same," Coba said in an interview with the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau.
Since becoming COO and director of the Department of Administrative Services in October 2016, she's been working to foster state agency leadership and upgrade state information technology.
Coba's role involves helping state agencies implement the policies of the governor, to communicate with each other, and finding ways to streamline state services.
Then Gov. John Kitzhaber created the position of COO in early 2011, part of his effort to make state government more efficient. It can partly be described as that of a "manager's manager" — the person in between the governor and state agency heads.
Coba estimates that about 75 percent of her time is spent on COO duties, and the remaining 25 percent leading the Department of Administrative Services, which oversees a broad range of statewide services such as procurement and risk management, and houses the offices of the state economist and chief information officer.
When she was appointed, Coba made a list of her priorities in the new post: recruit a younger and more diverse state workforce; advocate for accountability and transparency in state government; foster government leadership and restore trust in government.
A year and a half later, she's the first to say that the state will have to work hard, especially in a prosperous economy, to hire the next generation of public servants to stave off a wave of impending retirements.
As of mid-2017, 34 percent of the state workforce was eligible to retire. Under Coba's leadership, DAS has created an online "toolkit" that state agencies can use to think through their succession planning.
But she says that the state will have to find a way to make a career in government attractive to young workers.
"A lot of work needs to be done there," Coba said. "A lot of opportunity for those that don't work in government, but again, how do you convince them that you can really do cool things working in state government? I don't think people put those two words together, 'state government,' and 'cool.'"
And then there's another workforce challenge Coba has been focused on: leadership.
While critics of the governor have pointed to turnover among state agency heads, Coba says she doesn't think the amount of turnover is abnormal, especially in an era where people move more frequently between positions and employers.
"We're seeing workforce turnover more often anyway," Coba says. "We see that at the agency director level for a whole host of different reasons."
Not all of those agency director departures, of course, were voluntary, such as the August departure of Oregon Health Authority Director Lynne Saxton and, in March, State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen.
But most director departures, Coba says, were retirements and directors moving on to other jobs.
Coba, who works "in concert" with the Governor's Office to help and evaluate state agency leaders, says each situation is different.
"There isn't a standard process we use," she says. "It is situation specific."
Lisa Sumption, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, says Coba recognized the need for more training for new agency directors.
"Katy saw the gap, and said, we need a new agency directors' forum," Sumption said.
Sumption and ODOT Director Matt Garrett are both quick to praise Coba.
"She focuses, I think, her attention on doing what is right, what is just, rather than doing what is politically expedient," Garrett said. "I'm a big Katy Coba fan."
Garrett describes Coba's leadership style as both collaborative and consistent.
Sumption says Coba is also helpful in "navigating" discussions about state agency budgets at the legislature.
State Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, who sits on legislative committees focused on information technology and general government operations, says he's "impressed" with her work so far.
"I can only tell you from my experience meeting with her and her testifying in front of committees, that I'm very impressed with her," DeBoer said. "I think she'll do a great job."
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, said in a statement that Coba "has become invaluable to my vision for effective and efficient government services."
Yet other hurdles lie ahead. The state has had mixed success updating legacy technology systems. A new statewide phone system has encountered hiccups. The state's human resources system, which is 30 years old, is also in need of updating.
Rather than building its own system, the state is using software-as-a-service technology that the contractor will continually update.
Coba is looking for ways to streamline state technology, says Sumption, who chairs a state government leadership steering committee on information technology.
"She's focusing in on the efficiencies of government to say, 'Hold on, we don't need 100 payroll systems or 100 HR systems. We need one, and we're not really that unique,'" Sumption said.