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Executive-Branch Elephants

Robert Tobias
Robert Tobias is director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington D.C.

U.S. presidents have historically distanced themselves from their executive-branch employees. Rather than leading their workers, presidents have exhorted them to do better, and/or blamed them for doing badly. This approach has allowed presidents to remain above the fray and avoid taking any responsibility for executive-branch performance.

President Barack Obama seems to want change this arms-length relationship and to accept personal responsibility for executive-branch performance. Although politically risky, this approach has a chance to produce results for the nation as a whole -- but it will require federal managers to become leaders.

Of course, President Obama is not the first to focus on executive-branch performance. President Bill Clinton signed the Government Performance and Results Act, requiring government agencies to identify success measures and to create plans to achieve results. President George W. Bush took another step down the path to accountability when he created the Program Assessment and Rating Tool to measure and monitor the success of over 1,100 government programs.

No president, however, has yet been willing to invest the valuable resource of his personal time to improve executive-branch policy implementation. With President Obama now proposing that he meet personally with his highest-ranking political appointees, in order to hold them to account, this may be changing.

The "Analytical Perspectives" section of President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposal states that the president will hold "meetings with Cabinet officers to review their progress toward meeting performance improvement targets." If implemented, this would represent a dramatic shift in what a president demands of his key employees.

Presidents have traditionally distinguished themselves by the policies they create and get enacted by Congress. As a result, secretaries of departments are chosen primarily for their policy knowledge and credibility with Congress and stakeholder groups, not their ability to implement public policy. This approach has made sense because rarely have presidents been held accountable for public policy implementation failures: Presidents can credibly state they were not fully informed, call for an investigation, and blame the executive branch.

When it came to Hurricane Katrina, however, the public ignored this tradition and blamed President Bush for the catastrophic aftermath of the storm. President Obama may be trying to avoid such public-policy-implementation failures by being proactive rather than reactive. This change in presidential focus means leaders at every level of government will now be expected to take responsibility for those they lead.

Now's the time to address the elephants in the executive-branch room: employee disengagement and the lack of leadership capacity among executive-branch managers.

The impact of these interrelated problems is significant. The Corporate Leadership Council found that an employee who is engaged produces 20 percent more than one who is not. The Gallup and Watson Wyatt organizations have found similar results. Increasing productivity in the executive branch by 20 percent without costly technology projects or reorganizations is a tantalizing goal. How can it be be achieved?

Increasing leadership capacity is the most important change necessary to increase employee engagement in every department, agency and sub-agency, according to American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed the results of the Federal Human Capital Survey from 2002 through last year. The results show definitively that leadership development is needed. But few programs are designed to challenge good managers at every level of government to become extraordinary leaders.

Career public servants will need increased leadership capacity to fulfill the increased personal accountability for results envisioned by President Obama. We need leadership development programs for tomorrow's federal workforce in which:

1. Students learn to accept their responsibility and acquire the skills necessary to create an environment where those they lead are willing to give their discretionary energy to accomplish the leader's goals and objectives;

2. Students are challenged to model the behavior they seek, recognizing that leadership starts with the leader and not the led;

3. Content is balanced among public-management knowledge, skills, and values;

4. Students apply what they learn, report the results, and go back into the workplace to try again;

5. Students accept their responsibility to continuously learn, even when -- especially when -- they reach leadership positions.

6. The measure of success is whether students act with integrity, choose to work and learn collaboratively, and embrace change proactively rather than being forced to change.

We try to offer all these elements through our Key Executive Leadership Programs, and we hope other academic institutions will do the same.

By Robert Tobias

 |  October 9, 2009; 11:02 AM ET |  Category:  Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Wow! Apparently I have a lot of opinions on this issue. The other thing I wanted to say is that the PART and GPRA are a ridiculous measure of leadership. They are highly innaccurate ratings of programs' performance. And they are highly subject to misrepresentation, politics, and bias. I believe strongly in accountability and -- especially -- evaluation. But putting too much emphasis on this highly flawed approach as the method for improving leadership seems questionable.

Posted by: skeptic421 | October 16, 2009 1:35 PM

Oh, and as for the issue of poor managerial skills (let alone leadership skills), I have seen this in both for profit and not for profit agencies. People are always promoted to their level of incompetence. Noone has any real training in mentoring, supervision, or leadership. People's conflict avoidance drives most decisions, with no attention to how this affects the morale. It's perhaps worse in the government because there are less opportunities for "mid-level" management or supervision to allow people to learn before overseeing an entire office.

Posted by: skeptic421 | October 16, 2009 1:29 PM

A few suggestions for the political staff who come in, if they truly want to reform the executive branch and improve engagement:

1) Fix the "red tape" problems, don't just use your power to work around them for pet issues. You may get whatever it is you want, but you've left the rest of us dealing with the red tape. It's your problem, too, and only those in power can fix it.

2) Respect the staff -- many of us are competent, engaged, and could do great things. But if you assume that we all know nothing, we will become disengaged or leave.

3) LISTEN to the staff -- every four/eight years, we get a new set of staff that believes the past four/eight years accomplished nothing. In fact, they seem to think that they are the first ones to ever propose a new policy. If you listen to the staff, and allow them to openly discuss the problems (and, yes, successes) that occured in the past, we might not have to repeat the same mistakes every four/eight years!

4) Reward staff based on their competence. Let's face it -- there are many incompetent, "disengaged" staff in the executive branch. I've seen them in the private sector, too, but they aren't so protected. Reward those who really work hard, over and above those who simply have a longer tenure,

5) Allow the leaders in the civil service to be leaders -- if we are going to have to agree with everything the politicals say and do everything the politicals want, with no input or influence, we will take our leadership skills elsewhere.

I am a hardworking, motivated, engaged executive branch employee with strong leadership skills and capabilities. For awhile I thought I would stay in the government and move into a leadership position. But I am finding that the condescending tone of the politicals is nearly driving me out of the federal government. In their rush to dismiss all things Bush (as Bush dismissed all things Clinton), they are completely negating any good work we've done in the past decade or longer. And they are just making the same mistakes again.

This happened under Bush too. But it's more disappointing for me under the Obama administration, since I am a liberal. I never expected much from Bush.

Posted by: skeptic421 | October 16, 2009 1:25 PM

Mr. Tobias's knowledge and analysis of executive branch employees seems to me both shallow and limited. On what does he base his evaluations that find "employee disengagement and the lack of leadership capacity among executive-branch managers?" Many evaluations of the Bush administration identify widespread politicization of administrative positions, evidenced by the appointment of unqualified managers. In contrast, VP Gore was tasked with improving the efficiency of executive-branch organizations, and reportedly had some success in doing so.
Mr. Tobias seems only to be interested in touting his own program.
Who provided him with this platform for free advertising, and why?

Posted by: Lamentations | October 16, 2009 11:24 AM

In terms of Washington area employment I am relatively new. However, my recent observations support that there is a huge dis-engagement of leadership in the federal government executive branch. I think this leads to the low morale among the workforce.
Coming from the private sector I have been developed to believe that leadership's performance is directly tied to the performance of the led group. Typically in a high performing organization this is accomplished through the development of a balanced score card and closely followed through the use of performance metrics like key performance indicators. With these tools an employee can make the decisions with full knowledge of the impact and responsibility to the organization.

However, there is seemingly a disconnect in that managers in the executive branch are more entitled to leadership positions than capable to perform them. As a result you get an organization that is defensive to innovation because of the qualities of the innovator. It is my belief and I think that the data will support that the executive branch gets candidates that are qualified to "not innovate, challenge, or perform" than their private sector counterparts. This is further evidenced in the substantial questionnaires required to apply for federal manager jobs that would all but make it seemingly impossible for an outside qualified professional to reach i.e. questions agency specific not in accordance with any industry best practice nor learned methodologies. It is my belief that as a direct result disparate duplicate efforts, systems, processes, and missions will be developed and deployed at the expense of the shareholder or tax payer.

The President has his work cut out for him. One tool the private sector deploys to affect this challenge is voluntary early retirement programs…just a thought. As a tax payer I would support this because its effect could be two fold re-invigorating the federal workforce and stimulating the economy by incentivizing or restoring the nest eggs of those near retirement and ready!!!

Posted by: cory_ash | October 16, 2009 9:38 AM

While you haven't included evidence, Mr. Tobias, as Jcindy points out, there is some relative performance information on leadership and employee morale in federal agencies in the regular (annual?) survey on these topics by OPM. I just replied to the most recent one and I believe results will be out in early 2010. Past differences among agencies are striking. My last job was at an efficient, high morale agency (highly rated in the survey, too). My current agency is victimized by management that doesn't know how to manage and promotes others who don't know how to manage. Employee morale is rock bottom. The waste must be far in excess of 20%. Do not try to retrain the current, lousy managers; bring in better trained ones.

You may have an axe to grind, Mr. Tobias, but you are addressing a real problem.

Posted by: fairbalanced1 | October 16, 2009 8:18 AM

If the federal executive branch worker have anywhere as strong (dysfunctional) union rights as some of the states, I can't imagine how any leader can stay effective for long. These union rights disallow any way to selectively reward good performers or fire poor performers. They allow punishment for bad behavior, tardiness and gross mistakes, but even then it can be such a pain to pursue that, that more often than not managers overlook it. So, my suggestion would be have realistic methods of firing for poor performance built into the system - then see leadership by managers improve!

Posted by: dkraina2 | October 16, 2009 8:05 AM

"Now's the time to address the elephants in the executive-branch room: employee disengagement and the lack of leadership capacity among executive-branch managers."

Do you have proof of this elephant? Has a study been done? And if not and this is just your opinion, you should state it as such instead of cloaking it in language that makes it sound like a proven and universally accepted shortcoming.

This basically ends up being a commercial for your program.

Posted by: jcindy | October 16, 2009 7:35 AM

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