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Civil Service reform depends on strong leaders

Apr. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By RON SANDERS   |   Comments
Excellence in Government

By the time this blog is published, the Partnership for Public Service will have released its landmark report, Building the Enterprise: A New Framework for the Civil Service. Funded by a grant from Booz Allen, the report has been over a year in the making, and I had the privilege of working on it with the Partnership. You can download its full text from the Partnership’s website, so I won’t spend space here summarizing it; however, suffice it to say that we think the report offers a real basis for reform—and that’s coming from someone who spent almost four decades laboring under the confines of the current system…not to mention leading numerous, mostly unsuccessful attempts to change it!

However, those of us who worked on the report are not naïve. We know the political prospects for the kinds of changes we advocate are daunting, and even in the best of circumstances, they won’t happen overnight. That’s problematic, given the beating the US civil service has taken over the last several years. Its declining morale and competitiveness have already begun to take their toll, and as the general economy gradually improves, the lure of greener pastures beyond government will become even stronger for its best and brightest.

Is there anything that can be done in the interim, especially if it’s a protracted one, to salve the bruised psyche of US civil servants? I believe the answer is yes.

In all of our research we did for the Partnership report (and we talked to dozens of stakeholders, practitioners, and experts), one thing was crystal clear: Whether it’s living with today’s civil service system or fixing it, government’s success will depend on the quality and commitment of those who will actually lead our departments and agencies—the tens of thousands of supervisors, managers, and executives who recruit, develop, retain, and motivate our front-line civil servants.

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To be sure, the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Management and Budget and agency Chief Human Capital Officers all have an important role in that regard, but they’re too far removed from “where the rubber meets the road” when it comes to the actual exercise of leadership. And at the front lines of government, the old adage is true: Poor (or poorly prepared) leaders can undermine even the very best system, and good, well-prepared leaders can make even something as archaic and decrepit as the General Schedule work. That’s good news, at least up to a point.

However, if the sweeping systemic reforms we’ve proposed in the Partnership report ever do come about, the chances of their successful implementation will be considerably diminished without first reforming the way the federal government goes about identifying, preparing, and rewarding its leaders. Indeed, those reforms are not just a condition precedent to successfully implementing a new civil service system; they are also a prerequisite to the Obama Administration’s goal of ‘building a world-class federal management team, starting with the SES—as articulated in the most recent version of the president’s Management Agenda, just released two weeks ago—and leveraging it to create a smarter, more effective government now.

However, there is clearly a leadership gap in government today. The results of the latest OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey show it statistically, but one need only read the alarming story in last Sunday’s Washington Post on the Secret Service’s leadership deficit to get a first-hand sense of its reality. However, I would also submit that that gap is not so much the fault of individual leaders as it is the system(s)—if one can call a lot of disjointed policies and regulations and programs a system—that developed them. I myself am a product of that system, and I can personally attest to how haphazard and under-resourced it is—especially when you compare it to the investment our armed forces make in developing military leaders worthy of leading our troops.

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I served almost 40 years in the federal government (21 of those as a senior executive), and I can count the time I spent in ‘official’ leadership development activities—such things as schools, formal courses, developmental assignments, and coaching and mentoring sessions—in days and weeks…and I was fortunate to work for those few agencies that believed in developing their civilian leaders. My colleagues in uniform can count the time they spent preparing to lead in months and years.

For something as difficult and important as leading a government organization, that’s unconscionable, and it can come as no surprise when our departments and agencies struggle.

If that gap is going to be closed, it will take a substantial, sustained investment—in time, effort, money, and perhaps most importantly, attention from those who sit at the very top of our departments and agencies, especially OMB and OPM. This at a time when most agencies seem to be cutting back or in many cases cancelling formal leadership development activities.

There are two pieces of good (or at least the hopeful) news in this regard. First, as noted, the latest iteration of the president’s Management Agenda includes a specific objective on leadership development and commits the administration to [continuing] to invest in civil service leadership. There aren’t many details, but that’s a laudable goal nevertheless—now the administration just needs to back that up with a tangible set of initiatives…in other words, to put its money where its mouth it. I have some ideas regarding the SES that I’ll share in a future blog and others are outlined in the Partnership report, but I’m encouraged that the president is willing to make such a public commitment to it.

However, no conversation about the SES can begin without considering the years-long pipeline that prepares candidates for that lofty level, and there are a number of things that OPM can do right away to improve the way federal leaders are identified, selected, developed, rewarded, and held accountable.

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For example, while I would personally advocate throwing out the medieval General Schedule classification system, even that system has enough give in it to enable far more flexible ‘dual career tracks’ for technical experts on one hand, and those who demonstrate leadership aptitude and excellence on the other. This would allow agencies to promote skilled professionals for their technical value and not force them to become something they’re not: leaders. All OPM would have to do is revise its own classification and grading guidelines.

By the same token, entry into managerial ranks cannot be based solely or even primarily on technical expertise. Supervisors and managers must be selected on the basis of demonstrated leadership expertise, or alternatively, aptitude and potential. This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds. A number of Best Places to Work agencies have pioneered innovative supervisory and managerial ‘readiness’ programs that enable professionals to experience leadership responsibilities first hand (for example, while serving in a deliberately structured acting supervisory capacity).

And selection for first- and second-level supervisory and managerial positions can be materially improved with the use of assessment centers that place candidates in an environment that realistically simulates various leadership challenges—the 21st century equivalent of the venerable paper ‘in box exercise’—and allows expert assessors to evaluate their potential for leadership success. OPM could take the lead in developing and validating such an assessment, and it would represent an order-of-magnitude improvement in selection success.

And of course, agencies should invest more, not less in leadership development, with mandatory developmental ‘gates’ at each level (supervisor, manager, executive)…and not just for those new to each level.

OMB and OPM must lead the way in that regard, advocating (and more importantly, approving) such investments when they appear in a budget submission, but also demanding that agencies show some return on those investments—in terms of agency performance, employee engagement and citizen/customer satisfaction.

That’s not easy—just take a look at GAO’s recent report on the failure of most agencies to even attempt to measure the ROI from executive development—but it can be done, and those same measures can also ensure individual accountability: those who lead effectively should be rewarded and recognized…and those that don’t should be held accountable. But bottom-line: if we want better leaders—the only way to achieve smarter government—we need to first invest in them.

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