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

How Government-Supported Forced Labor Is Undercutting American Manufacturers

At a White House event in July to promote U.S. manufacturing, President Trump said, “The Made in America movement is growing rapidly under my administration, and we're more determined than ever to protect our jobs, our industry, and our workers. Every day we are putting America first.”

It was a welcome statement but, unfortunately, it doesn’t hold true when it comes to military uniforms and other federal apparel. It’s an open secret that our government has an inside deal with the Federal Prison Industries, a component of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that goes by the trade name UNICOR, to “mandatory source” garments made by prison labor before opening the bidding to American manufacturers. Since prisoners make as little as 23 cents per hour, U.S. contractors can’t compete and many are being forced to close their doors.

Forcing prisoners to sew garments inside “factories with fences” is legal under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. However, incentivizing federal agencies to support these prison programs through federal procurement regulations is akin to promoting modern-day slavery. America holds only 5 percent of...

This Can Make Middle Managers Inflate Success

Middle managers may be key in promoting unethical behavior among their subordinates, new research suggests.

In a study of a large telecommunications company, researchers found that middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate their subordinates’ performance and deceive top management, according to Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior and ethics at Penn State. The managers may have been motivated to engage in this behavior because leadership instituted performance targets that were unrealizable, she adds.

When creating a new unit, a company’s top management usually also sketches out the unit’s performance routines—for example, they set goals, develop incentives and designate certain responsibilities, according to the researchers. Middle managers are then tasked with carrying out these new directives. But, in the studied company, this turned out to be impossible.

“What we found in this particular case—but I think it happens a lot—is that there were obstacles in the way of achieving these goals set by top management,” says Treviño. “For a variety of reasons, the goals were unrealistic and unachievable. The workers didn’t have enough training. They didn’t feel competent. They didn’t know the products well enough. There weren’t...

Needed: A Commitment to Effective Performance Management

Several recent columns highlight how difficult and complex it will be for agencies to realize the Administration’s goals for “reforming the federal government and reducing the federal civilian workforce.” The stated objectives, starting with “create a lean, accountable, more efficient government,” essentially boil down to this: doing more with less.  

The core problem is that government is not staffed and managed by individuals who were expected to develop the skills essential to facilitate and lead organizational change. It starts with micromanagement (see “Micromanagement is Really a Trust Issue”) that flows from a habit of selecting supervisors based on technical skills and seniority. In “Wanted: Good Leaders For Government. Must Have People, Not Just Technical, Skills,” author Michael Cole argues that “technically competent leaders may set outstanding goals [that due to their management style prove] to be unachievable ones.”

In explaining the problem, Cole refers to an interview of Mike Mears, a former CIA executive, that was published in the Gallup Business Journal. Mears made a critical point:

“Though the U.S. government has world-class leaders and managers, its management framework resembles that of the factories of a century or more ago. That sort of structure was designed to handle...

If You Want to Make Smarter Life Decisions, Avoid These Five Mental Biases

Our traditional economic models assume that we act as rational agents. The general belief is that we all behave in a way that will maximize our utility value, and thus enable us to thrive in the world.

On the surface, this may not appear to be anything to worth disputing, but it is. As much of the work in behavioral economics has shown over the past few decades, this idealistic image of how we think just isn’t true.

I am not a rational person, and nor are you. We may strive to be, and we may aim to maximize our utility value, but there is a natural gap between the end and the means. Our brain has known limitations that hold us back. Over the past few decades, researchers have discovered many hundreds of subtle mental biases and errors that cause us to act irrationally. Most of them are intuitive to how we are programmed to exist, and many of them get in the way of us optimizing our lives for the best possible outcome.

A full list could probably fill a book, but some of them are more prominent than others, and they tend to affect us more...

'You Should Be Outraged:' An Air Force General Gives a Lesson in Leadership After Racist Slurs

Racial slurs were posted on message boards on the doors of five black students at the US Air Force Academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs, Colorado earlier this week. In response, superintendent lieutenant general Jay Silveria gathered all the Air Force cadets yesterday and did not mince words.

“You should be outraged,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” he said to the audience of 4,000 cadets and 1,500 faculty members and military personnel. Watch the full speech:

Silveria encouraged the cadets to embrace the power of their collective diversity and not let the values of their institution be taken away from them, saying the appropriate response to racism and horrible ideas is a better idea. Unless the US Air Force sets a strong example and starts difficult conversations, he cautioned, the institution would be lost.

A spokesman for the Academy said investigators are looking into the matter. Officials believe that a single culprit is responsible for the racist messages, judging by the handwriting, according to the Gazette. Silveria has received an outpouring of positive responses after video of his speech was posted online.