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

Rhetoric Scholars Pinpoint Why Trump’s Speaking Style Is So Persuasive

President Donald Trump does not sound like a traditionally impressive orator. His sentences are grammatically awkward, repetitive, and composed of highly simplistic words.

Trump’s remarks when he announced his campaign for presidency presents a typical example of his rambling, incoherent speaking style:

“I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively,” he said at the time. “Our country is in serious trouble,” he added. “We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating—let’s say China—in a trade deal? I beat China all the time. All the time.”

The speech was met with widespread derision yet, less than a year later, Trump got the votes to become president of the United States.

Richard Wilson, a professor of anthropology and law at UConn School of Law who has studied the language of demagogues worldwide, says that it’s not uncommon for populist politicians to speak in such a clunky style.

“They use unusual speech patterns and ungrammatical phrases and long pauses—and it kind of pulls you in...

Trump’s Big League Management Agenda

President Trump has rolled out a very big management agenda. You could even call it big league, if not bigly. But what’s really new here? 

No administration has ever bitten off quite so much with its management plan. The guidance that OMB Director Mick Mulvaney sent to the heads of executive agencies is an ambitious challenge to rethink agency missions, the workforce needed to fulfill them and the performance measures to chart success. All these pieces will be rolled into the 2019 budget, which the administration will assemble in the fall and announce early next year. That’s a huge undertaking.

It’s also a big deal because of what’s not in Mulvaney’s memo. In its first days, the president imposed a hiring freeze that was to be replaced, he said, with a plan to reduce the workforce by attrition. The word appears nowhere in the memo. More-seasoned heads prevailed.

In its place is a sophisticated strategy, one that challenges agency officials to first define their mission, and then base the workforce, organizational structure, performance metrics and budget around that mission. Ask a room of government experts how to tackle these issues and there would be vast...

Learning to Distinguish 'Fear' From 'Fear of Fear' is Key to Leading a Happy Life

There’s one piece of advice that’s always stuck with me: “The only way to not be scared of being punched in the face is being punched in the face.” This is quite true, as I learned after receiving the first (and only) punch in my life. Late one night, I inadvertently bumped into someone outside a bar and promptly got sucker-punched. I remember being shocked and having a bloody lip—but also, strangely, noticing that it didn’t really hurt that much.

This episode got me thinking about the difference between “fear” and the “fear of fear.” Learning to separate one from the other turns out to be extremely important to leading a happy life.

Fear versus facts

Fear is essential to human survival. It lets us know when we’re in danger, and it can spur us to take steps to protect ourselves or ask for help. For our ancestors, fearing isolation, starvation, darkness, and snakes all served important evolutionary functions.

Fear also helps us better understand the tradeoffs of our decisions—a concept that’s called “asymmetric payoffs” in decision theory. For example, from an evolutionary perspective, losing a day’s worth of food could mean...

Pentagon Misses the Target When It Comes to Its Workforce

The Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not been able to pass an audit since Congress required federal agencies to be audited nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s not surprising, as I don’t think any senior leader inside the Defense Department even knows how many people are on the payroll of the military, civilian, and contractor workforces. Also, none of them can tell us about workforce costs and how personnel reforms could save billions of dollars.

Recently, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to gather ideas on achieving greater efficiency inside the Pentagon. One subject that was raised—which deserves a lot more attention—is something called rightsizing the DoD workforce. In plain English, that means figuring out how many employees DoD needs and how much it should spend on personnel.

Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy testified that a human capital strategy is important for the agency. She said:

This [strategy] should include an assessment of the optimal mix of military, civilian, and contractor personnel across the department and by function.

Of note, a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that shifting 80,000 positions from...

Why Most Government Reform Plans Die

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” That quote is credited to the father of modern management, Peter Drucker. He was saying that leaders need to understand and address their organization’s culture in their planning. If Drucker’s focus was government, he might have said “culture eats strategy and reform plans for breakfast.”

The history of reform initiatives, at least as far back as the 1978 Civil Service Act, suggests culture has been a recurring impediment to change. Reform is badly needed but the initial guidance has been silent on strategies to gain employee cooperation.

Organizational culture has been discussed in publications for roughly 40 years. A search on Amazon for books on “management and culture management” found 5,400 titles. When the words “in government” are added, the number falls to 78 but only one is helpful in dealing with culture in public agencies. It was published 15 years ago by Virginia Tech’s Anne Khademian, Working With Culture: the Way the Job Gets Done In Public Programs.

It’s an idea that is broadly understood and accepted as important but never addressed in government reports. In all my years of reading reports, congressional testimony and articles on federal agency...

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