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Creating an Executive Corps for All of Government

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The following is one of a series of chapters Government Executive is excerpting from a new book, Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration and edited by Ron Sanders, vice president and fellow at Booz Allen. Click here for more information about the project.

When I joined the Obama administration as the deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, our team focused on making government more effective and efficient for citizens and businesses through our support of the President’s Management Agenda. We looked across government and set up structures that encouraged collaboration and the exchange of best practices between agencies, within agencies, and even within teams. Instead of the focus on the day-to-day operations that comes with leading one organization or initiative, it was our job to take a whole-of-government, enterprise-wide view and encourage other senior executives around government, both political and career, to do the same.

Then, in the summer of 2015, I found myself in a different role. As acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, I was at the center of the response to a serious cybersecurity intrusion against the U.S. government, a breach which resulted in the compromise of millions of personnel and background investigation records.

As leaders at OPM tackled this unexpected challenge, I was able to practice some of what I had preached in my previous role. Here, I gained a more tangible understanding of the importance and impact of taking a whole-of-government approach to solve difficult problems.

We sought out the experts. Our team spent countless hours (and boxes of pizza) working to secure, monitor, and upgrade OPM’s networks with help from technical experts from across the civilian government and the national security community. We consulted with privacy officials from OMB, the Federal Trade Commission, and across government. We collaborated closely with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on a contract to provide identity theft protection and notify affected individuals securely by mail. We did not try to fix everything alone. We recognized that a whole-of-government problem warranted a whole-of-government solution.

OPM’s challenge is not unique. Whether responding to a crisis like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, revitalizing a community through a place-based initiative, or tackling cross-agency priority goals like improving mental health outcomes for veterans or reducing the federal government’s carbon footprint, leaders in the federal government are faced with daunting challenges in increasingly complex and fast-moving times; those challenges more often than not require a multiagency response. Our leaders face challenges they cannot always anticipate and may not have seen before. And the American people rely on them to deliver results.

While no two challenges facing our leaders are identical, my experience in government so far has taught me that at least one theme applies to nearly every problem that government executives face: No complex problem can or should be solved alone. Modern leaders in the federal government need to take a whole-of-government approach to tackling the challenges of tomorrow.

A Whole-of-Government Approach

A whole-of-government approach can take many forms. It can mean collaborating across departments, levels of government, and even sectors to coordinate efforts and share data and best practices. It can mean breaking down silos to foster collaboration among the bureaus and subdivisions of a particular department. It can even mean fostering better collaboration within a given agency by encouraging senior line leaders to take ownership of key responsibilities like talent management and employee engagement.

The rest of this chapter describes some of the great work going on across the government to foster this approach. Then it outlines how the Obama administration took another major step forward by institutionalizing many of these best practices in December 2015 with its announcement of Executive Order (EO) 13714, Strengthening the Senior Executive Service.

Interagency Collaboration

Nearly every administration achievement, large or small, requires collaboration that draws on the talents, expertise, and resources of senior leaders in different parts of the government. For example, President Obama asked agencies to develop a tool that would allow aspiring college students and their families to make smarter choices about which schools met their needs.

The government had the data but lacked a central location to organize and present it in a way that was helpful to students. So leaders from the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Council of Economic Advisors enlisted the help of technical experts from the U.S. Digital Service and a unit of the General Services Administration (GSA) called 18F. The group discussed what data were available, what would be most helpful to students, and how to make the data user friendly. The result was a tool that allows students and families to search from nearly 2,000 columns of data on over 7,000 schools.

Whole-of-Community Collaboration

There are countless examples of federal agencies working together to better serve the American people. Yet sometimes collaboration needs to expand beyond the confines of the federal government. Place-based initiatives like President Obama’s Promise Zones break down silos between agencies and levels of government and work across sectors to solve problems identified by the community. Designated communities are given priority access to federal assistance and investments of staff and technical assistance. Federal agencies work together to streamline otherwise redundant and connected programs to maximize available resources. To help communities leverage these federal resources, federal staff are trained and embedded full time to support local leaders and help them coordinate across federal, state, and local governments and the private sector.

While these programs are young, early results are promising. In Eastside San Antonio, for example, high school graduation and school attendance rates have increased, a new equity investment fund is growing local small businesses, and at-risk and formerly incarcerated youth are gaining access to new job skills in growing sectors like healthcare. This success should be instructive for federal executives—by viewing the federal government as a member of a broader community, we can tackle more complex problems and deliver better results to the American people than if we try to operate on our own.

Collaboration Within Organizations

A whole-of-government approach can also mean breaking down barriers within organizations. Like the government as a whole, many agencies are organized by program area and staffed by subject matter experts. If senior leadership focuses on fostering collaboration between the components of an organization, there is a real opportunity to break down silos and deliver results. To do so, senior executives need the right skills and vocabulary. Nowhere is this more apparent than in information technology. All modern leaders should have a basic IT literacy so they can ask the right questions, hire the right talent, take advantage of the opportunities technology provides, and take necessary steps to mitigate the risks it creates.

This responsibility cannot be left to the agency’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) alone. During the OMB-led government-wide “cyber-sprint” review of the federal government’s cybersecurity policies, procedures, and practices in the summer of 2015, agencies were asked to dramatically accelerate the implementation of multifactor authentication. Federal CIO Tony Scott enlisted the help of top agency leadership through the President’s Management Council (PMC) to make swift and substantial changes within their agencies. Within a month, governmentwide rates of dual-factor authentication rose dramatically. This progress came from senior leadership working as partners with their CIOs and IT experts to remove obstacles and implement these important security reforms.

But it does not stop at IT. In the spring of 2016, OPM launched a national Hiring Excellence Campaign, a series of events designed to foster collaboration between hiring managers and human resources (HR) professionals. HR professionals have unique expertise in the technical aspects of bringing on new staff. But every team is different, even within the same organization, and managers are best equipped to know what kind of distinctive skills and talents they need on their team. Rather than leaving the business of hiring to the HR team alone, hiring managers need to fully engage as true partners in the effort. This is particularly true at the highest levels of leadership. Only by breaking down these silos and working collaboratively can leaders attract and hire the best possible talent.

Strengthening the SES to Support the Whole of Government

In a 2014 speech to the SES, President Obama reminded us that “[w]e need the best and brightest of the coming generations to serve. [T]hose of us who believe government can and must be a force for good…we’ve got to work hard to make sure that government works.” This year, more than 60 percent of the federal government’s SES members are eligible for retirement. While this potential loss of senior talent presents a challenge in knowledge transfer, it also provides an opportunity to recruit and develop new leaders and to make sure they have the skills, structures, and mindset necessary to embrace a whole-of-government approach.

The administration took a major step toward this goal when President Obama announced his EO on strengthening the SES in December 2015. The EO builds on the original intent of the SES, which was to create a cadre of expert managers and leaders capable of leading organizations and solving problems across the federal government. The actions focus on making it easier to hire the most qualified senior executives, strengthen tools for developing talent within the SES, and improve accountability and recognition. At its core, the EO’s recommendations highlight the importance of developing leaders with the skills, experience, tools, and mindset to be enterprise-wide assets—that is, to take a whole-of-government approach to solving tough problems. Its recommendations aim to develop the capacity to cultivate the best possible leaders from within existing federal leadership and recruit the best possible leaders from outside government. It also highlights the importance of senior government leaders taking full ownership over both of these efforts and making them a core part of their mission.

Developing Senior Leaders Through Talent Management

To cultivate senior executives who can provide the best enterprise leadership, we need a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to talent and succession management that helps us make decisions about how to best position our leaders for success. The EO requires agencies to establish their own processes to inform decisions about such things as SES hiring, career development, and executive rotations. The EO allows flexibility to tailor the processes to meet particular needs but builds on successful models currently employed at DOD and in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

DOD uses a talent management system to track its senior executives. The system solicits input from executives and their supervisors on past and current assignments, rotations, and long-term plans. Rather than tracking each leader separately, DOD takes an organization-wide view. Which SES members have experience in resource management? Who has spent time in a different part of government? Who is nearing retirement? This information is independent of formal performance reviews and evaluations. Instead, it gives DOD agencies the information they need to make strategic decisions about which executives are ready for greater responsibilities or who might benefit from a rotation. The result is a better approach to executive talent management and succession planning that improves employee engagement and retention and helps make the most of the most precious resources in the organization—people.

This approach is working in agencies smaller than DOD as well. The GSA also takes an agency-wide view of its senior leaders. It tracks the developmental path of its senior executives and makes well-informed decisions to cultivate its leadership.

The common theme is a commitment from top agency leadership. In the Army, the Secretary plays an active role in talent management. At the General Services Administration, talent management of senior leadership is a major piece of the deputy administrator ’s job.

Developing Talent Through Rotations

The EO also helps develop leaders with a whole-of-government mindset by requiring agencies to develop plans to facilitate rotations. As senior leaders, we work with our interagency colleagues every day. By spending time with other agencies, departments, components, and even non-federal partners, our leaders are given the chance to learn new best practices, understand other processes, and build relationships that are critical to getting work done across the government.

Think about OPM’s response to its cyber intrusion. Our work was made stronger by our interagency colleagues’ knowledge and perspective, and the experience they gained at OPM made them more effective leaders when they returned to their home agencies. In the Promise Zones initiative, federal staff went beyond the boundaries of the federal government to share and acquire knowledge from state and local governments and the private sector. In these efforts, formal or informal rotations added value for both agencies and individuals.

Rotations are a key element of talent management, and it is important that senior leaders take ownership of this process. In the IC, for example, you cannot join its equivalent of the SES unless you have completed a joint duty assignment (JDA) in another agency or organization. Employees starting at GS-11 are encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities, and senior leadership works to create an environment where employees are encouraged to do so. All rotational opportunities are advertised in a widely accessible, centralized location, and current senior career executives publicly list the JDAs they have completed. This environment sends a strong signal that leaving for a rotation does not take you off the track or impede your career progress; rather, it accelerates it.

The EO takes other steps to develop our senior leaders by setting a clear understanding that they are, as senior leaders, enterprise-wide leaders who are responsible for the success of their teams, their agencies, and the whole of the federal government. This starts from day 1. The EO creates new formal onboarding programs based on best practices developed by OPM and the Office of Presidential Personnel that go beyond the traditional building floor plans and paperwork and invest in an extended inculcation process complete with mentoring and action-oriented activities. It continues by requiring annual professional development sessions. Every three years, senior executives receive a full 360-degree leadership assessment, where they receive feedback from multiple sources on areas including their ability to work collaboratively across the enterprise.

Recruiting the Best Talent

Our best recruiting tool has been and always will be our mission. Nowhere else can experienced and talented people have an impact at the scope and scale they can have as a senior executive in the federal government. Whether it’s keeping our roads safe, our water clean, or our economy strong, senior executives devote their lives to keeping America running. However, we must acknowledge that talented senior leaders could work in a lot of places, and the private sector has certain advantages with which it is hard for the public sector to compete. The EO addresses this by providing additional tools to make it easier to attract and hire the talent we will need for the future.

One step is making the hiring process a little simpler and more accessible to folks from the private sector and other parts of government who have the desire and the credentials but are intimidated by the cumbersome application process or unfamiliar terminology used to establish the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ). Several agencies have moved to a resume-based application system. OPM is working to identify alternative application options that could reduce the burden on applicants and HR professionals while increasing the pool of qualified candidates from within government and the private sector.

This also means pay and recognition. Many potential applicants forgo significantly higher salaries to join the federal government. While the public sector may not be able to fully compete financially with the private sector yet, we can make sure we do our best to remain competitive. The EO begins this process by taking steps to increase the starting pay for SES employees with the goal of arriving at a point where they make more than the General Schedule (GS) employees they supervise. It also increases the limit on aggregate spending on agency performance awards, so agencies have more discretion to reward top performers.

We work in an increasingly fast-paced and complex time when, paradoxically, trust in government’s ability to solve problems is waning as the complexity of the problems we face is growing. To rise to the challenge, we must break down silos within our organizations, build bridges between departments and agencies, and embrace those in the private sector and state and local governments who share our commitment to making life better for the American people. Leaders in our SES are uniquely positioned to do so if they embrace a whole-of-government, enterprise-wide approach to solving problems. It is our collective responsibility to provide them with the tools necessary to enable this. The roadmap set out in President Obama’s EO is clear. Attracting, cultivating, training, and rewarding our leaders is not a task to be delegated. It is a core responsibility of senior executive leadership and an important part of moving the government forward in the 21st century.

Beth Cobert is former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and former acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Photo: Flickr user Nick Richards

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