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

An Open Letter to the President-elect, From a Swamp Dweller

Dear President-elect Trump:

By way of introduction, I am a federal employee, a swamp dweller, as you might say in the context of your “drain the swamp” mantra. As you are soon to be my new boss, and I and my colleagues your new employees, I wanted to take an opportunity to both welcome you to our ranks and share some insight into who we are and the challenges we face.

Personally, I have worked in various executive branch agencies and spent time working for Congress during law school. During my time in government, I have experienced a wide assortment of what federal employment has to offer and witnessed first hand many of its most pressing and frustrating challenges.

Let me begin by saying that being a public servant is not what you think it is; we are not what we have been made out to be in the public eye. Federal employees are not leeches dragging down our nation; rather, we are dedicated professionals working with little or no recognition and for significantly less money than can be made in the private sector.

So why have we chosen careers with the federal government? For some of us, it is...

The Future of Evidence-Based Policy Hangs on the Trump-Ryan Relationship

Like nearly every other aspect of the federal political landscape, prospects for evidence-based policymaking were upended by the stunning results of the 2016 elections.

Pre-election polls had predicted a continuation of divided government, with Democrats winning the presidency and possibly the Senate, while Republicans retained control of the House. Had that occurred, it would have extended the existing partisan gridlock, leaving evidence-based policy among a handful of low-profile issues where the two parties might still find common ground.

Instead, Republicans unexpectedly won control of the presidency while retaining control of Congress, sharply shifting Washington's center of gravity away from bipartisan consensus and toward a new and uncertain balance between the establishment and populist wings of the GOP.

Populist Rebellion

Evidence-based policymaking – a broad-based effort to tie the funding and design of federal programs to rigorous, independent evaluations that show progress – has commanded significant bipartisan support at the highest levels in recent years, including from both President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan.  

Because this support has been limited to the establishment wings of the two major parties, however, the consensus has always been fragile.

The 2016 elections clarified just how vulnerable that support might be. Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong...

It’s Hard to Overstate How Awful the Government’s Pay System Is

It’s that time again. The Federal Salary Council will soon announce its estimate of the salary gap between government employees and their private sector counterparts. Last December, the council reported salaries paid under the General Schedule system were 35 percent lower than private sector levels. But apart from the unions, few people in Washington truly believe the gap is that large.

Outside of government, labor markets are tightening and that’s pushing up pay. For 2016, surveys showed employers budgeted 3 percent for salary increases. Federal employees were granted a 1.3 percent pay boost, including locality adjustments. For 2017, surveys show employers are budgeting 3.1 percent for increases while the president has announced plans to increase federal pay 1.6 percent. (Although it’s rarely mentioned, the step increases should be added to that.) In the 26 years since the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act was enacted, no president has approved increases that would begin closing the reported gap.

As a point of reference, when the increase budgets reported in those surveys (conducted annually by the professional group WorldatWork) are compounded over the 16 years starting in 2000, the total is 69 percent. For comparison, over the...

Get Ready: Presidential Transitions Are Full of Surprises

In early August, shortly after the party conventions ended, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump moved their transition teams into office space near the White House. Briefing books were prepared for the teams, and both nominees began receiving intelligence reports. The search for 100 pre-cleared individuals who could move quickly into sensitive roles following the Nov. 8 election began. The General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget are playing the lead roles in coordinating all of this.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, a new and different phase of the transition will begin. The pre-inauguration phase encompasses the 73 days between the election itself and Jan. 20, 2017, when the nation’s 45th president will take the oath of office. Agency-specific transition teams, or “landing teams,” will move into space around the city. Cabinet secretaries will be selected, with certain departments (Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, etc.) at the head of the queue. And the bureaucratic march towards assuming power will begin in earnest.

Much can change during a presidential transition – people (obviously), but also priorities, policies, enterprise focus, organizational alignments, the game plan, and budget initiatives and particulars. The new administration must craft a budget for the 2018 fiscal...

The ‘Legitimation’ Crisis: Why Have Americans Lost Trust in Government?

Elections normally decide who is to govern. This upcoming election is about the very legitimacy of the system.

At the final presidential debate, Republican candidate Donald Trump made the remarkable statement that he might not accept the outcome of the election. Even putting this rancorous and divisive presidential election aside, trust in the federal government in general has been in decline for decades.

In 1964 over 70 percent of Americans recorded having trust in the institution, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center. By November 2015 it had fallen to 19 percent, less than one in five of Americans. A recent Gallup Poll survey reveals only 20 percent trust in the presidency. Low. But not as low as the only six percent who trust Congress.

Trust and confidence in government waxes and wanes; an unpopular war or economic recession deflates the numbers only to be reinflated when the war ends or when the economy picks up. But the ending of the long postwar boom and the declining confidence in economic globalization have raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence.

There are a number of potential crises in democratic capitalist societies. As outlined by German...

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