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Generalists in an age of specialists

Aug. 12, 2014 - 03:59PM   |  
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)

Consider this common event: A late-day meeting, called to discuss a single policy issue or decision, spontaneously expands into other topics that go beyond the expertise on hand among the participants. Most of the time, the result is follow-on meetings or additional analysis.

It does not have to be this way. Developing general knowledge or having a generalist available can expedite decision making.

This is an era of specialization across many sectors in the economy. Specialized degrees, professional training, and experience on issues are coveted. The federal sector is no different. Policy solutions today are technical and complex; specialists grasp such things. While experts are sought after, the value of generalists with broader knowledge goes less noticed.

A limitation of specialization happens in the scenario above. The decision maker wants information unrelated to the specific issue at hand, which is most of the time. Maybe it is about legal issues or Congress. Maybe it is about finance or human resources. Depth of knowledge is not always necessary to move past these hurdles. Simple answers to basic questions can be the difference between a decision and another round of bureaucratic churn.

The generalist brings a valuable perspective to the 21st century policy environment. They often focus on the hardhat, lunch-pail work of getting work done in bureaucracy. They know process and institutions. The best generalists have often served in many positions and multiple places.

One of my mentors, a retired-SES, worked in nearly a dozen different offices during his career. He became a master of an Agency in part through his ability to move correspondence through the gauntlet of concurrences. It is not glorious work. Yet, generalists often spearhead securing approval and ensuring the implementation plan is in place for a given task.

There are a few bastions of generalists in the federal sector. Two of them, where I have had the privilege to work, are high-intensity and action-oriented institutions. In Congress, many of the most effective staff members are generalists. There is too much content and too few staff members to become experts on every subject. They develop knowledge as needed to advise their members and committees.

On the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, the professional staff members are the ultimate generalists. For the Agencies and programs under their purview, they develop knowledge of authorization, regulation, finance, human resources, policy, management, and strategy, among other areas. The annual product is a few dozen staff assistants and members draft in a few weeks the concise report language that allocates the entire $1 trillion federal discretionary budget, including management direction and funding levels. In contrast, thousands of executive branch employees, many of whom are specialists, develop the Presidentís request over almost a year in thousands of pages.

At the White Houseís Office of Management and Budget (OMB), generalists also rule the day in the Resource Management Offices (RMO) where the analysts, known as examiners, focus on the federal budget. In the National Security Division, a single OMB examiner is responsible for reviewing tens of billions of dollars of the Presidentís budget. Over time, examiners can become subject matter experts but broad knowledge is employed to identify issues in the Agency budget submissions. They must acquire sufficient depth to make recommendations to the OMB Director or Program Associate Director (PAD) on subjects as varied as the utility estimates at military bases worldwide, to assumptions built into the military personnel compensation system, to causes of cost growth in major weapons systems.

The argument made here is not about the superiority of generalists over specialists or vice versa. To the contrary, a federal sector entirely comprised of generalists would be a real problem. They sometimes miss important, consequential details. An organization of specialists has its own challenge of bogging down on details. The two groups are not incompatible, they are complementary.

Becoming both a generalist and specialist is a laudable professional objective (most people believe they are both). The reality, however, is organizations have people who tend to be generalists or specialists. They are not always teamed as effectively as they could be. Executives and managers are well-served to include both generalists and specialists on their staffs and projects. They will produce the best results.

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