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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.

By Paul Light

 |  May 20, 2010; 6:08 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A cup short on robustness | Next: Nuclear option for the Recruiter-in-Chief


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Management, HR and OPM are slick! They'll figure out ways to blunder the process more... to continue with KSA questions and digital interviews. There is zero training to first-line managers and most of them are hired because they were excellent performer/worker, or their spouse, neighbor or good friend is a high-end manager or executive somewhere. The good-ole-boy club! It is a cancer in every dept... until Congress and the Administration start focusing on that... NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING is going to change.

I mean c'mon... I just searched the USAJOBS.gov for financial positions... the same higher agencies STILL require the application manager dozens of questions (now multiple choice... rotf.) and tons of them use a generic position description... having the applicant no clue what the job really is! Everyone wants a worker to have 10 years of specific experience... Yeah sure! Why? You mean an accountant that worked on systems and management financial briefs couldn't audit a financial system? There are just too many flaws, but start enforcing the laws from nepotism, favortism and cronyism would make real change... Yep! That means holding the current management accountable for their actions and their work product! Hmmm.. think that will ever happen?

Posted by: darbyohara | May 24, 2010 7:06 AM

Mr Light , I have never read such clearsighted
path for solving the leadership problem in Washington. Your call for comprehensive reforms should be heeded
by both the federal government and by polititions
in both parties. Thank you for your voice of reason .

Posted by: Agn1 | May 23, 2010 6:45 PM

Thank you, Mr. Light, for pointing out a significant Leadership problem in government. I find that as resources become more and more constrained the focus tends to go into keeping the status quo going instead of making policy shifts that can make a positive difference. I sincerly hope our national leadership in the executive branch and in the congress devote more time and recognition to making wise investments in public policy changes, such as this.

Posted by: CongressObserver | May 22, 2010 1:54 PM

Most people have the mistaken idea, like DCYUK , that its just one big country club working in a government office. I suggest that anyone who is so deluded take a trip to any local federal office and see - its depressing . As for finding the talent to staff a more robust government, it seems like there is a generation of teachers out of work ... now we just have to convince people that a career in service of the country is as rewarding as a career in service of education... and not be lying about it.

Posted by: djnyc | May 22, 2010 11:33 AM

A 40% rate of confidence in senior management is unendureable. If the senior executives are required to perform their jobs and take responsibiity for their actions, many of the Federal government's problems will be solved. What people don't understand is that MANGERS are the Federal employees who don't work and can't(won't) be fired.

Posted by: kahala11 | May 21, 2010 5:20 PM

Taking over Wall St., the banks, the auto industry, insurance, healthcare, and anything else he can grab.

Posted by: Intrepid68or
First of all it was the GWB's administration that took over Wall Street, Banks and auto company and two the biggest insurance companies because management created this problem in the first place in their haste to profit while the companies imploded from within because they did not have to fortitude to have liquidity to backstop themselves in event of a crisis.

Secondly GWB is a typical person who pass on his problem to other people to fix. He has done that all his life including having his Daddy's friends bail him out.(proof: he has ran two oil businesses into the ground).

Typical wingnut falsehood that you keep sprewing out with no basis in fact or you were in coma the whole time.

Like the author says it is a problem that needs correcting but the government is politics on a daily basis with senior management quashing people who do a good job because of political consideration involved. Plus that fact some do not have the degree to do the job they were hired to do in the first place.

Posted by: beeker25 | May 21, 2010 1:55 PM

Why does any one think that this would make a difference?? The government doesn't do a thing for the bottom line of our country, except in the respect, that they do a wonderful job of pushing papers around. BO keeps adding to government with all the new depts., that he feels are necessary to stifle future growth in our country, by adding more and more paperwork, procedures, ad nauseum. Instead of doing anything practical and in a sensible way, this clown wants to make everything as big, expansive, and totally under government control, his control, as he can. He (BO), has not done one thing to help our country, to this point. Taking over Wall St., the banks, the auto industry, insurance, healthcare, and anything else he can grab. The only thing that he is providing the consumer with, is BILLS, not counting all the new ones, that he keeps printing!!!

Posted by: Intrepid68or | May 21, 2010 1:32 PM

Government is about process, not results. Government is about diversity, vets, making sure the right forms are filled out, with the proper signatures, etc. If at the end of that some change happens or the state of nature shifts, well, that's a bennie. Technology? My OS is XP, my Office is 2003 and I have IE6. next month I get an upgrade, maybe, to IE7, Office 2007 but the OS is TBD. But you can bet it won't be Win 7

Posted by: ronjaboy | May 21, 2010 12:18 PM

Aside from eliminating KSA-styled essay questions this bill makes NO SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES to the current federal hiring fiasco. Developing workforce mgmt programs is already required by the OPM. this bill like the President's memo is nothing short of task list usually prepared for "poor performers" to help them understand and focus on what they have to do to receive a minimally successful rating. THESE ANECDOTAL APPROACHES ARE MORE ON EMPHASIS VERSUS CHANGES. OPM continues to be the weak link needing to be told what to do and how to do it by non-HR technical personnel i.e. the President and members of Congress. This is just another example of OPM's inability to perform its oversight responsibilities under current regs, laws, etc. Workforce mgmt, reporting etc. is already required by HCAFF. All this points to poor performance by the OPM and UNTIL THE OPM IS OVERHAULED OR REORGANIZED TO FOCUS ON IT'S PRIMARY CORE MISSION - WITH TECHNICALLY-SKILLED/EXPERIENCED PERSONNEL, FEDERAL HIRING AND FEDERAL EMPLOYMENT IN GENERAL WILL CONTINUE TO BE AN EMBARASSMENT TO THE ADMINISTRATION AND SERVE AS THE WORST EXAMPLE OF LEADERSHIP IN THE FEDERAL GOVT.

Posted by: NotAJoke | May 21, 2010 11:49 AM

Wonderful! This means that the government, from top to bottom will be even more incompetent than it is today.

Incompetent President, Administration, House of Representatives and the Senate. Now we can have even more incompetence at the lower levels too!

Just gives me shivers up my legs at the very thought!

Posted by: cstrasburger | May 21, 2010 11:29 AM

The Government doesn't work well, because it CAN'T work well: that is not the nature of a political/regulatory beast. Moreover, I'm not sure that we would be happy with the results if it did work well.

I'm not an anarchist: we do need Government! But it should be LIMITED in size and scope.

We need to correct an earlier error in our political philosophy: the personal is the personal; and the political is the political. If you get the Federal government in the middle of your personal life, it will not turn out has you hoped in the long run.

Posted by: Steve59 | May 21, 2010 10:12 AM

Remember what happened to the SEC attorney who tried her best to investigate Madoff? Her supervisor pulled her off the investigation just when she was beginning to see serious problems, because his boss (who married a Madoff relative)told him to pull her off the investigation. They assigned her meaningless work, and then harrassed her until she gave up and resigned. Well this example is just one of thousands that occurs in the federal workforce. How about adding that until the Inspector General's staff truly listens to complaints and seriously investigates these complaints, no federal worker is safe from the shenanigans of management.

Posted by: AnnsThought | May 21, 2010 8:37 AM

Laughable platitudes.....

Posted by: josephfranklyn | May 20, 2010 11:10 PM

Government is thick with waste and corruption. A US taxpayer subsidized welfare program to support bureaucrats racking and stacking the rest of us in the name of serving us.


Posted by: bandcyuk | May 20, 2010 5:25 PM


Posted by: wcmillionairre | May 20, 2010 2:30 PM

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