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The Federal Coach

Preparing your agency for big cuts ahead

Last week, President Obama released his proposed budget for 2012 as Congress struggles to reach consensus on funding government operations for the current fiscal year.

While the size of the budget for next year and the level of appropriations for the remainder of this year remain unknown, as federal managers you already know the trend for the foreseeable future--big cuts are coming.

Yet even with these very sizable cutbacks, you will be expected to do at least as much or more work performing at a high level and producing results for the American public.

Now what?

Most top agency leaders I know have been planning for the worst case scenario for some time, and that certainly should be the norm. However, it's important that as managers you have a series of different contingency plans in your back pockets. You cannot always predict exactly what will occur, but it's important to be ready for a variety of possibilities.

With that in mind, here is some advice that I've picked up from leaders who have experienced this budget cutting environment before.

Plan for the worst. For this scenario, I suggest studying Defense Secretary Robert Gates' approach. He examined all of the options and publicly placed down his markers before others weighed in with their plans. Gates outlined a set of well-informed, serious cuts that angered many stakeholders, but demonstrated a commitment to financial management. You should also consider reviewing options as Gates did to either keep programs running at reduced levels or shutting the door on those that may be the most expendable in the current environment.

Be flexible. I've seen a lot of leaders paralyzed by the fear of cuts and unable to make decisions. While you must hunker down and plan for all of the worst case scenarios, you also need alternate routes that will enable you to be nimble as situations change. For example, don't automatically freeze all expenditures on hiring, training, new contracts and other efforts. You still may want to recruit and screen applicants for mission-critical positions, but hold off on hiring anyone until the funding situation is clear. The same is true of training and other activities.

Kill the rumor mill. Agencies have well-developed rumor mills, and I've heard from many federal employees that the anxiety and frustrations associated with the budget uncertainties is high. While water cooler gossip is inevitable, as a federal manager you can try and minimize this by being the primary source of accurate information. Use your weekly team meetings, one-on-one check-ins and even a weekly email to set the record straight about what's known and unknown.

Get serious about results. Every federal employee I know is driven by getting the job done and delivering results that carry their agency's mission. During this budget cutting environment, you can help your team succeed by working together to assess your available performance data and having an honest conversation about whether your programs are demonstrating progress. Report your successes to agency leaders. Roll up your sleeves to determine how you and your team can help struggling programs improve their results. There's a serious focus on program evaluation on the part of the White House and Congressional leaders so it's important that you do this evaluation work now. It's better to prepare than be caught unaware.

This advice is a just start for how federal managers can make the best of the current budget climate. I would be interested in hearing ideas from others--particularly those who worked through the difficulties of the 1990s--who may have some insights to help others right now. Please post your comments here or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

And check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Harold Holzer, an expert on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era and the senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

By Tom Fox

 |  February 18, 2011; 5:48 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Ask the FedCoach: Applying leadership concepts in the real world | Next: What fed workers can learn from Lincoln: An interview with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer

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The text below is extracted from my comment on the above article:

"To this I’d add the recommendation that you use your intranet, internal web sites, and internal blogs to head off and respond to misinformation and rumors. You may even need go so far as to allow staff to let off steam by communicating their frustration and fear openly online via available social networks. And be sure when you see a comment or question posted, regardless whether the post is made on official or public networks, get it answered ASAP before misinformation festers."

The rest of my article is located here: http://www.ddmcd.com/reductions.html

Dennis D. McDonald
Alexandria, Virginia

Posted by: ddmcd1 | February 22, 2011 6:16 PM

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