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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Everyone Fails, But Only the Wise Find Humility

Failure is like the original sin in the biblical narrative: everyone has it. Regardless of class, caste, race, or gender, we are all born to fail, we practise failure for as long as we live, and pass it on to others. Just like sin, failure can be disgraceful, shameful and embarrassing to admit. And did I mention ‘ugly’? Failure is also ugly – ugly as sin, as they say. For all its universality, however, failure is under-studied, when not simply neglected. It’s as if even the idea of looking at failure more closely makes us uneasy; we don’t want to touch it for fear of contagion.   

Studying failure can be a contorted, Janus-headed exercise, though. With one pair of eyes we have to look into ourselves (for ‘moral’ or ‘cognitive’ failures, for failures of ‘judgment’ or ‘memory’), and with another pair we need to dwell on instances of failure ‘out there’, in the world around us. Fascinating as the former can be, let me focus here on the latter: the failure we experience in our dealings with the world.

Picture yourself in an airliner, at high altitude. One of the plane engines has just caught fire, the other doesn...

The Pressure to Improve Service Is Only Going to Increase

Over the past several years, there’s been a renewed effort to improve the experience citizens have when they interact with government agencies. This has been driven by presidential mandate, agency leadership, digital innovation, and industry support as well as consumer demand.

Some may wonder if this is really such a departure from earlier initiatives to make government services more accessible through websites or apps. It’s really part of an evolution. While technology tools and upgrades are part of the solution—and leveraging those tools is important—truly improving citizen engagement requires a more robust approach. Both content and technology must be integrated across channels and services in order to serve citizens efficiently and effectively.

Matching Commercial Experience

An advanced citizen engagement model is the next phase of the service revolution, and one that citizens are demanding as they increasingly expect service similar to what they get with Amazon, Apple or Hyatt. Yet while many agencies have significantly enhanced their customer experience with new technology, true citizen engagement requires more than digital tools alone.

Historically, legacy IT systems, process and organizational silos, and restrictions on data sharing have made it difficult to provide a seamless government customer experience to...

Even Obama Has Trouble Making It Out of the House in the Morning

Departing the White House for a flight to Chicago this morning, US president Barack Obama took a couple steps outside, then stopped. He patted himself down and quickly shuffled back inside.

He forgot his cell phone.

It’s another one of those rare, humanizing glimpses that have become more common as a looser, more relaxed Obama enters his last months in office. He might travel with the nuclear codes, but he forgets his phone in the morning just like the rest of us.

The president seemed to have good humor about the situation. It’s not the first time, after all.

The Desire to Fit In is the Root of Almost All Wrongdoing

Imagine that one morning you discover a ring that grants you magic powers. With this ring on your finger, you can seize the presidency, rob Fort Knox and instantly become the most famous person on the planet. So, would you do it?

Readers of Plato’s Republic will find this thought experiment familiar. For Plato, one of the central problems of ethics is explaining why we should prioritise moral virtue over power or money. If the price of exploiting the mythical ‘Ring of Gyges’ – acting wrongly – isn’t worth the material rewards, then morality is vindicated.

Notice that Plato assumes that we stray from the moral path through being tempted by personal gain – that’s why he tries to show that virtue is more valuable than the gold we can get through vice. He isn’t alone in making this assumption. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes worries about justifying morality to the ‘fool’ who says that ‘there is no such thing as justice’ and breaks his word when it works to his advantage. And when thinking about our reasons to prefer virtue to vice, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) David Hume confronts the ‘sensible knave’, a...

How Bad People Rise to the Top

If I had a list of Top 10 topics that people like to talk about in life, this one would undoubtedly be on it: How is it that jerks always seem to get ahead while nice guys finish last? In his book of the same name, Harold Kushner asked a similar question: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People

Based on my observations of awful, corrupt leaders over the past 15 years or so, here are a few suggestions:

They have infinite ambition. You and I want to go home at the end of the day. We want to have a life, go to the movies, make art. We feel bad when our work commitments cut into our family time. But to a corrupt leader, the only thing that matters is getting the position they're after.

They lack emotional intelligence. You and I feel bad when we see somebody crying. But the corrupt leader either doesn't notice or doesn't know why they should care. They don't relate to other people.

They feel deprived of something they perceive as owed to them. You and I say to ourselves, we have to work for stuff in order...

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