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The federal sector from the inside

Jul. 8, 2014 - 02:52PM   |  
By JAMES WINDLE   |   Comments
James Windle works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and has worked at the Office of Management and Budget, the House Committee on Appropriations, and multiple federal agencies. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of NREL or the U.S. Department of Energy.
James Windle works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and has worked at the Office of Management and Budget, the House Committee on Appropriations, and multiple federal agencies. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of NREL or the U.S. Department of Energy. (Courtesy Photo)

Times are challenging in the federal sector. Budget uncertainty continues with a zero-growth discretionary spending cap in fiscal year 2016. Increased oversight reduces flexibility to execute programs. The media aggressively covers any misstep. Yet, despite this confluence of concerns, the public and Congress expect more than ever from the executive branch and its contractors.

Leaders in the federal sector are well-served to follow the latest developments in management and budget. This knowledge is often the difference between advancing mission and mission failure.

Over the past decade I have worked in the engine rooms of the federal government. My time at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, on the Committee on Appropriations in the House of Representatives, and with multiple federal agencies has revealed correlates for succeeding in the current environment.

Three elements comprise the foundation of how to effectively navigate the federal sector today: cross-disciplinary knowledge, networks, and ethics.

First, cross-disciplinary knowledge of multiple aspects of the federal sector is invaluable. Subject matter expertise is necessary but not sufficient for success. The best tool-kit involves an understanding of policy, regulation, human resources, budget, procurement, Congress, and OMB. Such knowledge supports the adaptive decision making needed to pilot the dynamic conditions where constraints are imposed with minimal notice.

Second, underpinning most effective initiatives in government is a network of savvy bureaucratic operators at key nodes. It is no accident the networks form. The best operators know the institutions involved in an initiative and identify allies who share an interest in getting results. Mastering processes and institutions is nearly as important as knowing the right individuals since people often change positions.

Finally, in today’s watchdog culture, all involved with the federal sector must be ethical. When I ran for Congress in 2012, ethics in government was one issue that united Republican, Democratic, and Independent voters. One profligate conference by federal employees or a contractor’s mischarging undermines public and Congressional confidence. The accumulation of well-meaning corrective actions from a few ethical lapses has compounded the externally imposed hardship by making even simple actions more difficult, like attending conferences and travel.

The starting point of a dialogue on challenges and solutions in the federal sector begins with accurately evaluating the situation. My blog next week explains the events of recent years with a single development: the politicization of the appropriations process in Congress. Gone are the days when keeping the government running transcended partisan differences on Capitol Hill. The federal budget has become the central battleground of the age-old debate between the two parties on the proper role of the federal government.

Ironically, the resiliency of the executive branch has made the situation worse. Delivering programs through over a decade of Continuing Resolutions, the sequester, and the shutdown have actually enabled the pattern of brinkmanship and procrastination in Congress.

I look forward to a spirited, civil dialogue with the readers of Federal Times. Please provide comments and let me know if you have a subject you would like me to cover. I can be reached at: jameswindle@msn.com.

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