The leadership problem Obama's hiring initiave won't solve
Every president since Harry S. Truman has entered office with an agenda for making government work, and President Obama is no exception. He's launched a series of initiatives that aim to reform government bureaucracy and reverse the sagging confidence in government.
His most important promise so far may turn out to be the new hiring process for the next generation of federal leaders. The president's memorandum makes clear he wants agencies to accelerate the federal hiring process, build a more transparent tracking system for applicants, and increase the overall quality of recruits. Not only that but he wants to make it easier for veterans to find federal jobs, increase workforce diversity, streamline the security clearance process, increase access to training, improve labor-management relations, and modernize the federal pay system.
These are all important, vital goals, and speeding up the hiring process will do a world of good. But Obama's challenge does not end there. The government needs to not only attract and efficiently hire quality talent -- it also needs to motivate, train and retain the people it does hire.
The current federal hiring process is more appealing to applicants who want security, not the chance to make a difference. The evidence is in the federal government's own employee surveys.
According to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 63 percent of recent federal hires said that job security and the opportunity for advancement, pay, and various benefits were the most important factors in deciding to work for the government. In contrast, only 10 percent said that challenging and interesting work was their top criterion, while just 9 percent put the focus on making a difference with their work. Although all of these hires also said that mission was one of their considerations, it simply did not rise to the top of their primary list. Business employees may take their jobs for the same reason, but they don't have the same responsibilities.
Now let's say the government manages to solve the problem of how to attract and hire talented, motivated world-changers. A significant part of the answer is to change the hiring process to capture talent as quickly as possible and hire the candidates who show the strongest commitment to making a difference and the highest potential for growth. That is what Obama clearly wants to do.
The question is what happens when these highly motivated recruits actually get to work. Do highly motivated future leaders might start out with enthusiasm, only to find their responsibilities are so narrow that they cannot have a meaningful impact?
Hints of this frustration are easy to spot in the Office of Personnel Management's 2008 Human Capital Survey. Although more than 90 percent of all federal employees said their jobs are important and meaningful, well over half also said they did not "have a sense of personal empowerment" in their work, less than half said they had sufficient information to connect the dots within their organization, and four-in-10 federal employees reported feeling that their workload is unreasonable.
In other words, there's no point in speeding up hiring if the bureaucracy itself is still moving at a snail's pace.
Finally consider the work environment. Future leaders can't learn the ropes and make a difference unless they have the resources to succeed. However, federal employees report shortages in every resource needed to do their jobs well, including training, technology, talented co-workers, well-trained managers, and qualified leadership.
Again, the evidence comes from current employees. Barely half of federal employees said they were satisfied with their involvement in decision-making that affects their work. Moreover, just over half of federal employees also said that they do not have sufficient resources to get their jobs done. Over a third of federal employees reported that were not given opportunities to improve their job-related skills.
As for the quality of their co-workers, federal employees are worried. Although they say that their co-workers share the mission of government, and work together well, they also express concerned about the talent base. According to the OPM survey, roughly half of federal employees say skill levels in their work units have improved over the previous year. At the same time, however, less than half say their agencies are able to recruit employees with the right skills.
The complaints extend to views of managers. Almost half of federal employees were dissatisfied with their communication with their managers, and almost two-out-of-three said they did not receive sufficient feedback on their training and development needs. In addition, 45 percent said their managers did not encourage communication with other work units, another clear barrier to connecting the dots involved in the recent government breakdowns such as the Christmas Day bombing plot.
These complaints also extend to the senior leaders. Less than half of the federal employees interviewed in 2008 had a high level of respect for their organization's senior leaders. Additionally, only half of the federal service said senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, and just 40 percent said that their senior leadership generates high levels of motivation and respect in the workforce.
This is not the kind of environment that produces highly motivated, well-trained future leaders. Recruiting them is hard enough, but keeping them is nearly impossible unless they get the encouragement and resources to succeed. Without more aggressive reform further up the bureaucracy, it is not clear that the federal government can prepare the next generation of leaders, especially if new recruits do not respect their current leaders.
If nothing is done to improve these problems, new leaders will simply drift toward security as their only motivation or leave. Neither is an acceptable outcome. Federal employees deserve decent pay, a measure of security, and good benefits, but they must be motivated first and foremost by the chance to accomplish something worthwhile for their country. Fixing the recruitment problem merely creates a new set of problems further up the career path.
It is time for comprehensive reform of the entire bureaucracy. Obama should take steps to flatten the federal organization chart to create more opportunity for impact, provide enough resources so federal employees can do their jobs well, teach managers and senior leaders how to provide more encouragement for innovation and trying new things, and eliminate the needless duplication and overlap that gets in the way of making a difference.
This kind of reform would not only make federal jobs more meaningful, but would produce higher productivity and performance. It could also save a rather large amount of revenue at a time when taxpayers are clamoring for federal hiring and pay freezes. It is a win-win-win situation that Obama should not miss.
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