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The Presidential Transition Should Include Civil Service Reform

This is the first column in a two-part series.

Maybe, just maybe, the time has come for civil service reform. The idea keeps surfacing: Hillary Clinton promised “VA reform will be a top priority.” The Defense Department has begun implementing its new civilian personnel system, New Beginnings, while Congress considers a proposal to reform hiring—the Workforce Flexibility Act of 2016. Overhauling the Senior Executive Service has been discussed since 2012. The Republican platform calls for cutting federal pay and benefits. And numerous reports calling for reform have been published.

The recognition that reform is needed is widely shared. Something is needed because the civil service system is no longer serving the needs of government at a time when public support has declined.

The last time the public’s trust in government was this low was at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Two months after his inauguration, he authorized the National Performance Review with the goal of “creating a government that works better and costs less.” In October 1993, a month after the initial NPR report was released, Clinton issued Executive Order 12871, creating the National Partnership Council with union and management members, and charged it with planning...

Can You ‘Teach’ Workers to be More Emotionally Resilient?

You may know someone like this at work: optimistic and resilient, they appear to bounce through challenges drawing on an internal strength that helps them work through problems they encounter at work. Always hopeful and positive about the future, they treat stressful events as a “one-off” situation, appearing to have a built-in buffer that protects them against both ordinary and extraordinary events. Perhaps this is even you.

In the search for ways to increase employee productivity, lower costs and increase an organization’s bottom line, people with these qualities are ranked by managers as the “perfect” employee. This sort of emotional resilience is often considered innate. But can it be taught?

Building a better employee

Researchers who study these qualities refer to it as “psychological capital”, or “PsyCap”. PsyCap comprises four dimensions: 1) self-efficacy - how confident and self-assured a person is when faced with a difficult tasks; 2) optimism – how positive a person is about doing well now and in the future; 3) hope – how determined a person is to strategize and work hard towards a stated goal; and 4) resilience - the extent to which a person can bounce back from a difficult event (such as losing their job or...

The Science Behind Hillary Clinton’s Problems With Trust

Large swaths of the American public want Donald J. Trump to be their president – maybe even a majority, according to an analysis from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight in late July.

Many people – Democrats and Republicans alike – find this shocking.

Trump made his name as the “You’re fired” guy. He has never held political office, has arguably failed to generate concrete or realistic policy proposals, regularly changes his positions on issues and consistently gets the facts wrong.

This stands in sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has served as secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady of the United States. In his endorsement of her, Barack Obama described Clinton as the most qualified presidential nominee in U.S. history. Presumably experience with, and knowledge of, the system and issues are qualities that make for a good president – so why is this race even close?

How to build trust

Research, including new work from our Human Cooperation Laboratory at Yale, suggests Trump may be successful precisely because of his hotheadedness and lack of carefully thought-out proposals. Being seen as uncalculating can make people trust you.

Hillary Clinton is the opposite of hotheaded. She is careful and calculating – which...

There’s a Simple Way to Have Meetings That Result in Something Meaningful

Earlier this summer, I attended a meeting at the White House hosted by Stanford Medicine X and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The daylong workshop had a wide range of attendees, from Pfizer and Apple executives to patients researching their own fatal illnesses. The group of 90 was tasked with developing ways to engage doctors, scientists, policy makers, developers, families, and patients in research.

For such a complex problem, a single day seemed hardly sufficient to leave with concrete ways to tackle the problem. But Claudia Williams, a senior policy advisor for OSTP and one of the leaders of the workshop, did something ingenious as the meeting came to a close. She set aside time for everyone in the room to share an appreciation, extend an offer, or make an ask. People raised their hands and spoke ad-hoc. No one had anything prepared but a few people expressed gratitude, some made asks, and many more put forth offers.

The appreciation comes first and it’s really the key to the whole exercise. It can be anything ranging from thanking the organizers for hosting the meeting to offering gratitude to a specific individual for taking the lead on...

How Over-Customization Kills Government Technology

Yesterday Scott Burns, the CEO and founder of GovDelivery (disclaimer: not an endorsement) published "The Elephant in the Room...Is Government the Worst Possible Customer?" on LinkedIn.

As someone who has worked for the government for more than a dozen years, and who frequently helps define requirements for government IT projects, I was interested to hear a vendor's idea of the things that are taboo to say.

His list of reasons why venture capitalists shy away from government as a customer include: 1) excessive customization requirements; 2) excessively cost-based decision-making; and 3) excessive paperwork.

Overall I agree with Burns' assessment, and hope that the next administration will take on the challenges he outlines. It will not be an easy undertaking, for the following reasons: 

  • Excessive customization requirements are a mask for self-interest. Frankly, many departments, functions, and jobs are outdated and even superfluous. Commitment to a true commercial-off-the-shelf IT solution, together with the adoption of private-sector best practices, makes that obvious.
  • Excessive cost-based decision making is a mask for self-interest. The government has a notoriously high IT project failure rate for many reasons, chief among which is the ignorance and risk-aversion of those writing contract requirements. If you know...

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