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A call to action: developing the next generation of federal leaders

Developing the next generation of leaders for the federal government should be one of the highest priorities that Congress and federal agencies have. A new report finds that federal government agencies must increase efforts to prepare those leaders for the realities of a 21st century, which include unexpected and disruptive changes brought about by new technologies, changes in climate and demographics, and an uprooting of alliances and previously agreed upon social norms and practices.

The report — “Preparing the Next Generation of Federal Leaders: Agency-Based Leadership Development Programs,” released by the IBM Center for The Business of Government and co-authored by myself, James Perry from Indiana University, and Jenny Knowles Morrison and Gordon Abner of the University of Texas — found that there are some exemplar leadership development programs throughout government at agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Agriculture — but that such agency programs need to be expanded more widely.

Unlike corporate America and the military, which systematically groom their leaders from Day One, the federal government’s approach is generally uncoordinated across agencies and not well-informed by research or best practices. Our report found that current programs “… are akin to having many different pilot programs convening simultaneously with neither a rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of those programs nor any coordinated effort to enhance next rounds of programming.”

This has consequences when public confidence in the federal government is at an all-time low.

“Just two-in-10 Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (4 percent) or ‘most of the time’ (16 percent). Nearly seven-in-ten (68 percent) say they trust the government to do what’s right only some of the time and 11 percent volunteer the response that they never trust the government,” a 2017 Pew Foundation study found. This compares to the 1960s when 85 percent of Americans said they could trust the government to do the right thing.

Without career federal leaders in the executive branch being perceived as capable of navigating the complex and challenging environment the government operates within, the American taxpayer will continue to doubt whether government is delivering value to them. And for good reason — the U.S. government is the nation’s largest employer (2.6 million career civil servants) and those civil servants implement a $4.4 trillion annual budget that touches the lives of all Americans on a daily basis.

Effective leadership can help to increase public confidence that full value can be delivered to Americans for this enormous investment.

So we know the problem, but do we know the cure? The IBM Center report provides strong evidence that it is long past time to continue neglecting how we develop our leaders in the federal government and is a clarion call for action.

Like with the military and corporate America, the executive branch of the federal government needs a culture and practice of systematically developing leaders. Our study demonstrated that effective leadership development programs exist, and that if properly resourced and implemented will produce the talented career leaders our government requires.

The report contains many recommendations, including identifying the factors that enable successful leadership development programs to thrive in the federal government.

Our most important recommendation is to stop treating developing our next generation of leaders as an afterthought and accept that this is a national priority of the highest order.

Retirements among baby boomers are accelerating and government is having a tough time attracting new generations to government service (only 6 percent of the current workforce is under the age of 30). Ensuring that new generations of federal leaders are prepared for the challenges we all know are on the horizon is vital to our national interests and the functioning of government.

Bill Valdez is president of the Senior Executives Association, the professional association for career members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) and equivalent positions.

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