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.
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