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Senior Executive Service: The key to real reform

The President's Office of Management and Budget is trying hard to engage the federal government 8,000 senior executives in fixing the federal bureaucracy. The deputy director of OMB sent a thirteen-page memo to members of the Senior Executive Service (SESers) this week outlining its agenda for reform. The memo was gentle but strong. It called on the SESers to do their part in pushing reform. If they don't buy into the administration's effort, there is virtually no chance that the agenda will succeed.

The SES occupies the layer between the president's top appointees and the career civil service. Most are federal career employees, but about 10 percent are political appointees who are appointed by the president without Senate confirmation. The vast majority of the career SESers are highly motivated, well trained, and already work the extra hours needed to achieve results. They don't get paid for overtime, but put in plenty of it. In a phrase, they get it. They know where the bureaucracy is broken, but often lack the tools to create change.

Don't expect the political SESers to take hold of the management agenda anytime soon. They don't stay long in their jobs and have a very different mission. Their job is to make political decisions on the president's behalf, not drive management reform down into the dense thicket of bureaucracy below them. Too many are motivated by their own advancement, and would much rather spend their time working on policy issues, not the mundane tasks involved in bureaucratic streamlining.

OMB is well advised to focus on the career SESers as the key to success. They play on both the defensive and offensive lines of government. They stand between the president and bureaucracy when political appointees go wrong, and block for the president to get things done. They rarely make policy for the quarterback, but they translate it downward and drive it forward. They're the ones who pass the information and guidance downward, and move the ideas and reality upward. They have to know when to say "no," and why to say "yes." Most do.

The career SES hasn't quite turned out to be the highly mobile workforce once imagined, however. Most SESers started out in a silo and stayed all the way up to the top of the career ladder. Some treat the post as merely another promotion upward to what used to be known as the super-grades. But the vast majority of SESers take their new jobs seriously. They know they stand between the good and bad.

OMB's talented deputy director for management, Jeff Zients is right to ask for their help. As he wrote in his September 14 memo, the career SESers have the "experience, expertise, and passion" to pursue high performance within their organizations.

But it is not at all clear that the SESers have enough bureaucratic juice to implement the president's emerging management agenda. Like the "hogs" that helped the Redskins win their first battle with arch-rival Dallas last Sunday, career SESers just don't get much respect or recognition.

For example, President Barack Obama has yet to meet with them and may not even know they exist. Unlike President George H.W. Bush who spoke directly to the SESers early in his first year, Obama has had little to say to the workforce in general. If he has a management agenda of his own, he's let others do the talking. He seems just as scared of taking on bureaucratic reform as his congressional allies, and never mentions it on the campaign trail.

The senior White House staff seems checked out, too. They don't seem to understand that bureaucratic reform could save buckets of money and blunt the constant anti-government rhetoric that drove Tea Party candidates to shocking victories in Delaware and New York on Tuesday.

There is one area where career SESers have to play quarterback. They know more about the interior workings of their agencies than anyone else, including OMB. They know which programs are working and which are disaster zones. And they know where the potential meltdowns are. A quick survey of the SES would produce reams of information that could help prevent another food scare, oil spill, mine disaster, bombing plot, and on down the list of likely scares.

It is not clear, however, that these SESers are welcome to raise the warning flags. The political appointees at the top of their agencies sometimes bring them into the conversation, but often ice them out. Too many politicals see the career civil service as a barrier to action. Democrats are just as likely it seems to draw hard lines between the policies made at the top of their agencies, and the career civil service below. The president's political officers want impact immediately. They rarely think about management and implementation when they advance the latest fad for healing the economy, protecting the environment, protecting food, drugs, and drinking water, and on and on down the list of policy initiatives.

It is up to SESers insert themselves into the dialogue, but they cannot attend the key meetings if they are not invited. Moreover, the steady growth in the number of political appointees has created less and less space for career SESers to join the conversation--there are only so many seats around the table, many of which are now reserved for "alter-ego" deputies who revel in their supposed importance. Few politicals want to hear that their grand plans cannot be implemented without an infusion of resources.

Obama is the one to open the dialogue and reinforce OMB's agenda. He should meet with the career SESers and make his agenda clear. As former Saturday Night Live comic John Lovitz used to joke, most SESers are saying, "Get to know me." Obama should take up the challenge. After all, the SESers are blocking for him.

Clarification: There has been a lot of coverage of my note that the number of deputy assistant secretaries has grown dramatically over the decades. But my numbers apply to government as a whole, not just to the Defense Department.

By Paul Light

 |  September 15, 2010; 11:29 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Change management , Decision-making , Federal government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ah, yes, the successful senior political appointees are those that make themselves open to the SES level; and don't treat them as the "left-behind enemy" from the previous Administration. Over my recently ended career including SES service, I found that it was not political party affiliation that blocked reaching-out to the career staff, but too often lack of management experience by newly appointed political appointees who knew not a whit about leading people, communicating clearly let alone wanting to seek out opinions and guidance. They often enough saw those that there "before" as partisans from a previous Administration rather than individuals who had knowledge to be sought out. Then again sadly for those within, it was often that political leadership quickly became bogged down with their own internal differences as they too often divided into camps between staff and operating offices or personalities and personal viewpoints leaving career staff without clear direction.

The ultimate decision makers are, of course, the politicals of any Administration. Yet to deliver results that endure seeking-out and actually listening to SES career staff is time-consuming, may be frought with differences of opinion, but does add to the likelyhood of success. Career staff are to be neither the enemy nor pawns, or are they?

Posted by: nibbler | September 24, 2010 9:51 AM

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