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A Public-Private Innovation Classroom

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On Jan. 14, 2010, President Obama welcomed 50 corporate chief executive officers, government Cabinet deputy secretaries, and labor union leaders to the White House for the Forum on Modernizing Government.  In his opening comments, the president praised the federal workforce, saying “I can say without any hesitation that our government employees are some of the hardest working, most dedicated, most competent people I know . . . They are dedicated; they put in long hours and they care deeply about what they do. And they desperately want to provide the very best service for the American people.”  The president expressed that the government workforce’s best efforts are often thwarted because “the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government,” or put more succinctly, “Washington lags a generation behind in how we do business.”

The president also praised the assembled business leaders who faced equally daunting challenges and overcame them.  He observed: “Many of you are pioneers—harnessing new technologies to build thriving businesses; some of you have revolutionized industries; you’ve changed the ways we look at the world.” Through the use of innovation and experimentation, these corporate executives found ways to increase productivity and better serve their customers. Recognizing that the government should follow suit, the president challenged the executives to “keep stepping up and sharing your insights and your ideas and your expertise.  We’re going to need you to help us build the kind of government that the American people expect and the kind of government that they deserve—and that’s one that spends their money wisely, serves their interests well, and is fully worthy of their trust and respect.”

Suzanne Logan, director of the Federal Executive Institute, heard the president’s call to “learn from the private sector,” as a call to action, and initiated a far-reaching effort to integrate private sector managers and executives into programs at FEI’s Center for Leadership Development.  With realization that the complex (“wicked”) problems confronting the United States are too demanding, diverse and interdependent to be effectively resolved by a single entity—public or private, Logan supports the president’s belief that cross-sector cooperation is vital to maintaining national security, promoting national prosperity, and providing efficient and effective services to the U.S. public.

To achieve the FEI’s ambitious mission of developing “visionary leaders to transform government,” Logan knew that its curriculum must look forward, not backward.  It must address tomorrow’s topics today through programs that afford participants opportunities to discuss in classrooms the complicated issues they will later decide in conference rooms.  Being experienced in both government service and adult education, Logan comprehended that the exploration of difficult issues while building common understanding, collegiality and cooperation through collaborative education and active learning leads to long-term understanding and strategic leadership skills.

To achieve her vision, Logan sought approval from the Office of Personnel Management to add private sector and nonprofit leaders to the executive development programs offered by the center.  In presenting her case she acknowledged “the numerous benefits for such an expansion outweigh the potential drawbacks that have been identified and can be mitigated.”  The benefits she highlighted include the following:

  • Leveraging the unique expertise and experience of private sector managers and executives
  • Addressing the common challenges and opportunities confronting both public and private leaders
  • Increasing trust and understanding among the individual participants and the institutions they represent
  • Integrating “the latest and greatest” private sector initiatives into the curriculum quickly
  • Adapting private sector best practices for public service

Summarizing her position, Logan said, “This initiative eliminates the middleman by letting the practitioners of these innovative ideas sit side-by-side with their public sector counterparts and participate in a collaborative program in which the learning will be maximized though a natural-but-very-powerful sharing process.”

Despite these immediate and important benefits, Logan anticipated reluctance from various stakeholders.  Aware of the government’s insular nature and wariness of outside influences, she foresaw hesitancy in allowing corporate executives “inside the wire.”  To calm these fears, she openly addressed the two most obvious worries—protecting the integrity of federal development programs, and personal influence. 

First, she stressed that the sole purpose of including private sector personnel is to enrich the learning experience of the government participants. Second, to ensure the programs remained focused on the federal employee, she proposed limiting private sector participation to the level it would benefit the government participants. Third, she proposed segregating instruction on sensitive subjects as needed to ensure private sector participants do not unduly influence their public sector counterparts.  Lastly, to safeguard the sanctity of the classroom and enforce the FEI’s strict nonattribution policy, she offered to implement nondisclosure agreements if required. Similar measures are used at other government institutions such as the National Defense University where military officers and corporate executives study side-by-side during a 10-month immersive professional education program.

With these assurances, OPM approved the request in 2013, authorizing CLD to access private sector personnel into its programs.  Moving forward, Logan directed exploratory interviews be conducted with various corporations to determine their level of interest. Pleased with the positive initial response, she implemented a broader outreach effort to alert private sector enterprises of this opportunity and its potential return on investment for their firms and their executives. Those returns can include the following:

  • Increased self-awareness as an individual, team member and leader
  • Enhanced leadership and management skills, especially in the areas of team-building, strategic thinking, influencing/negotiating, political savvy and external awareness
  • Expanded professional networks, enabling improved interorganizational collaboration and problem-solving
  • Improved ability to leverage the diverse talents of public and private workforces
  • Increased resiliency, mental and physical wellness, and work-life balance

Intrigued by the opportunity to learn with and from their government colleagues, several major firms have expressed interest in enrolling executives in future Leadership for a Democratic Society programs at FEI. With awareness building, CLD expects to access its first private sector executives in late 2014.  In doing so, CLD will not only make the educational experience richer and more rewarding for its government participants but also lay the foundation for the public-private partnerships that are necessary to meet the future challenges facing our government, our nation, and our world.

If you know of a private sector firm interested in participating in a CLD leadership development program, notify Claire Thurston at Claire.thurston@opm.gov or (434) 980-6271.

Michael F. Belcher is a faculty member at the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute. He previously was director of the Marine Corps War College before retiring from military service in 2011. This article first appeared in FEI’s Executive Summary.

(Image via g-stockstudio/Shutterstock.com)

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