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

There’s a Crisis of Meaning in Government Service

So many people feel disconnected from their workplace today. Something is missing, they are stressed, unsure of how they fit into the organization’s purpose, irritated by their coworkers’ lack of empathy and trust. They feel they have little control over their work, and are especially frustrated by the “political” whims of their leaders.

Many leaders attempt to address these issues with new programs, such as flextime, incentives, offsite events, and special perks, yet the level of worker satisfaction remains stubbornly low.

It’s time to take a new approach and get to the root cause of these workplace issues: When people feel disconnected from others in the workplace or feel they don’t belong, it’s because there is a lack of meaning. When they lack purpose in their day-to-day tasks, it’s because there is a lack of meaning. When they don’t understand how their work matters to the mission of their organization, it’s because of a lack of meaning. When they feel overwhelmed and drained of energy at the end of the day, it’s because of a lack of meaning.

These are intrinsic, not extrinsic, issues and must be dealt with accordingly. They must...

The Trump Administration’s Innovation Problem

Just before Labor Day, the American Technology Council—the White House task force charged with propelling government IT to a new level—issued a broad set of initial recommendations. Coming from what has widely been deemed the most unorthodox administration in recent history, it's notable that the recommendations are actually fairly orthodox and reflect a continuation of themes that have evolved on a slow but steady basis for the last three or four administrations. Cloud migration, application modernization, security assessments, and more, are all core to the report. In addition, it lays out a set of time-bounded requirements for agency action on virtually every element.

The rub, of course, comes in execution. For while the White House goal is to accelerate progress, recent history suggests that it will take a lot more than a report or White House leadership to do so. It requires a realistic assessment of why progress has not been faster, why cloud migration—more than a half dozen years since the advent of the “cloud first” policy—remains a work in progress, and what human capital, process and policy changes are essential to success. In other words, this is not just a challenge for the...

There’s Reason For Optimism In Federal Personnel Management

The nomination of Jeff Tien Han Pon to head the Office of Personnel Management is a welcome development. I have not met Pon, but his credentials are exemplary. Previous OPM directors no doubt have been solid citizens who knew government, but aside from Beth Colbert, I do not recall any who had extensive experience in human resource management. That is as far back as Scotty Campbell, who is credited with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Now it appears that OPM will be led by someone who has had reasons to understand the best HR practices in the private sector, the problems veterans have in transitioning from the military, and hands-on accountability for federal personnel management.  His experience is unique.

Personnel management is undergoing a radical transformation. I’ve worked in HR both as a consultant and as a manager for over 40 years. Sometimes the work involved meaningless paperwork. I’ve worked for the best and for many who were not. I know how easy it is to make jokes or blame HR for an organization’s problems.

A simplistic measure of HR’s new stature is the compensation. The highest paid executives in 2016 earned more than...

A Dangerous Moment for Career Senior Executives

Prior to my retirement in 2011, I spent 37 years at the Labor Department, 23 of which were at the senior executive level. That and my service on the board of directors of the Senior Executives Association—which I chaired from 2006 to 2010—gave me plenty of experience in new administrations’ transitions to power.

Transitions are the moment when senior career executives earn their pay. They must guide their organizations (often in unfamiliar acting roles) during a period when little or no direction is coming from the top and employees at all levels are nervous and uncertain. They must reach out to new political leaders as they gradually arrive, giving advice and providing vast quantities of information to bring them up to speed. Because highly complex organizations must continue to function, important decisions must be made in the context of a near-total lack of understanding and familiarity between new political leaders and career employees.

Most administrations during my tenure started out distrustful of the career staff they inherited. But all discovered before long that the career folks, especially those in the Senior Executive Service, are competent, nonpartisan, and critical to keeping the trains running and getting policy decisions implemented...

Helping Needy Coworkers Can Be Exhausting

Helping your coworkers too often can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion and may even hurt your job performance, a new study suggests.

These depletion effects are especially strong for employees with high “pro-social motivation”—those who care deeply about the welfare of others.

While previous research on helping has focused largely on the effects of the beneficiaries, this is one of the first studies to focus on the helpers.

“Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot,” says Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University. “Somewhat ironically, the draining effects of helping are worse for employees who have high pro-social motivation. When these folks are asked for help, they feel a strong obligation to provide help, which can be especially taxing.”

For a new study, 68 employees in a variety of industries, including finance, engineering, and health care, filled out surveys in the morning and afternoon for 15 consecutive workdays. The surveys measured depletion using a previously established scientific scale and helping through another scale that asks questions such as “Today, I went out of my way to help co-workers who asked for my help with work-related problems.”