How Action Learning Launched Change Across Federal Government
By Anthony Rios, Director, Division of Federal Employees, Department of Labor, Key Alumni & Faculty
When I was approached last month to contribute to American University’s Key Alumni Blog, I immediately said yes. The invitation asked me to blog from the perspective of an MPA graduate of the Key program rather than from my official capacity as a public servant. I was told I had free reign to write about anything pertaining to leadership as long as it was important to me and contemporaneous to the publication of the blog.
I knew immediately the topic of my blog.
But first, a little bit about AU’s Key Program.
One distinguishing aspect of AU’s Key Executive MPA program is the real-time application of what you’re learning in the classroom while solving actual problems in your workplace. In lieu of a master’s thesis, students are tasked with identifying a longstanding problem in his or her federal agency (the entity generally sponsoring the tuition) and engaging in an 18-month process of identifying possible solutions to the problem. To ensure that Action Learning is being applied to an actual issue at work, students are required to obtain leadership’s concurrence through the execution of a contract. The contract, once signed by the sponsoring agency officials and the student, is examined by AU faculty for academic rigor and to test its practical application of Action Learning.
My 2009 Action Learning contract centered on the development of a universally accessible web portal that could be used by the entire Federal workforce to claim workers’ compensation benefits. The system’s primary objective was to allow federal staff to select, initiate, complete, and route forms to multiple parties online, but there was a second purpose. The system, to be called the Employees’ Compensation Operations Management Portal (ECOMP), was also intended to eliminate unnecessary, redundant and disparate claims filing systems around the federal sector that had been independently built by many executive agencies and for which annual operations and maintenance costs were paid by U.S. taxpayers.
At the time I designed my Action Learning contract, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had already approved my agency’s budget request to develop ECOMP, but its development had not yet begun and its functionality requirements had not been drafted. I was in charge of overseeing all of this in my official capacity, but I saw the Action Learning project as a chance to ensure that the system exceeded all of its intended objectives.
My challenge was to develop a system that would prompt most federal agencies to voluntarily decommission their existing systems in favor of ECOMP. There are roughly 120 federal agencies if you combine cabinet level and independent agencies with the U.S. Postal Service. Altogether they comprise a workforce of approximately 2.6 million employees. Given the politics involved in mandating a unified platform for the entire federal government, I was certain that OMB would never mandate the use of ECOMP for 2.6 million users.
By applying AU’s Action Learning process, my team and I were able to align and capture most federal agency needs, while managing stakeholder conflict constructively. The system was built and deployed in 2011, and as of 2019 nearly all agencies had voluntarily decommissioned their own systems and migrated to ECOMP.
Three weeks ago, OMB advised all agencies that by the end of 2020, everyone must migrate to ECOMP. The leadership principles that AU taught me were instrumental in developing a system that agencies willingly chose to use, but the system’s credibility and design were so powerful that it acquired OMB’s support and led to what I once thought was impossible – a directive that made ECOMP the singular system for the entire federal government.
About the Author
Mr. Rios was appointed Director for the Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation (DFEC) in November 2016, and prior to that was the Director of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation division.
Mr. Rios has over 25 years of experience in the field of workers’ compensation, first joining the industry in Hawaii while working for a law firm that specialized in plaintiff representation. He later became a private insurance claims adjuster and eventually joined the U. S. Department of Labor in 1994 as a claims examiner for DFEC. He held multiple positions during his first 19 years in DFEC, to include Assistant Chief for Hearings and Review and Deputy Director. As Deputy, Mr. Rios conceptualized, designed, developed and deployed the first universally accessible, web-based e-filing system for federal workers’ compensation forms and documents. Under his direction, the program deployed a national interactive voice response telephone system and also consolidated case creation activities from 12 offices to one centralized processing center.
After being appointed Longshore Director in 2013, he led that organization through a transformational effort that included a major overhaul of its IT infrastructure, migrating from a paper-based filing system where benefit applications and correspondence were maintained in paper jackets around the country, to a paperless content management system where documents are now managed through the use of digital imaging storage. Mr. Rios also restructured mail and case-creation operations that were normally conducted in 10 offices and centralized them into two sites, Jacksonville and New York City. Finally, he oversaw the promulgation of new regulations in 2015 that allowed for electronic transactions not previously possible due to prescriptive statutory language.
Currently, as Director of Federal Employees’ Compensation, Mr. Rios oversees the administration of workers’ compensation coverage to 2.6 million Federal and Postal workers and the issuance of over $3 billion in compensation annually. Mr. Rios provides the program’s framework, guidance, and technical assistance to all agencies in the Federal government, the 14 DFEC offices and a workforce of over 900 claims staff. Mr. Rios also directs the development of all systems necessary to process billions of dollars in medical and wage replacement payments, and leads the operation and maintenance of several multi-million dollar IT systems designed to support claims management, electronic claims filing, and payment of program outlays.
Most recently, Mr. Rios led the implementation of DFEC’s opioid control policy and fraud detection, and drafted reforms to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act that were included in President Trump’s FY 2020 budget. Those reforms are designed to modernize program administration, simplify benefit rates, and introduce controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
Mr. Rios received his MPA from American University in 2010 and his BBA from Strayer University in 2007. He was also nominated in 2012 by the Deputy Secretary of Labor to represent the Department at the Army War College, and was selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in its 18-month Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. Mr. Rios was appointed to Senior Executive Service by the Obama Administration in 2013.
About the Key Programs
Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.