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Leadership Matters, But Government Has a Deeper Problem

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In recent weeks, Government Executive has published a sampling of chapters from the book Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration. We hope that in so doing, policymakers and legislators may realize there is a crisis at hand.

That crisis is quiet. There are no blaring headlines signaling it. The federal government continues to function at a high level despite all the turmoil and turbulence at home and abroad, and that’s a testimony to the unsung professionalism of the career SES corps and the civil servants they lead. Indeed, one could argue that the last several months, our civil servants have provided an historic example of their true value to the nation.  

Nevertheless, the challenges that beset the SES, so well-documented in the book, are real enough, and it is our contention that if they are ignored, the American people will no longer be able to take the excellence of that career executive corps—and hence the excellence of the people that they lead—for granted.

An Administratively Achievable Agenda

Building a 21st Century SES offers a practical—and most importantly, achievable—set of recommendations. Taken together, they represent a blueprint for ensuring continued career leadership excellence. And the good news is that most of the recommendations can be implemented administratively, without the need for congressional action. That is especially the case when it comes to developing and deploying an executive cadre capable of leading the “whole of government” in the 21st century, just as its architects originally intended.

All it takes is the will to do it. And if the current administration’s reorganization effort is a guide, its leaders may just have that will, as well as an innate appreciation for the value of executive leadership in making it succeed. That won’t be easy. Many will resist the changes we (and others) propose, but we believe they’re worth fighting for.

However, we must add a warning. While it is critical that we modernize how we develop, select, deploy and reward the federal government’s career leadership corps, that alone is not enough. The old saw—that good leaders can make even a bad system work—only goes so far when it comes to the federal government’s management systems. Even the best senior executives can become frustrated by the systems’ mind-numbing complexity. Whether it’s trying to buy the latest technology or putting together a plan for executing next year’s budget, managing the federal government’s departments and agencies can drive the very best of our career executives downright batty.

Arcane, Archaic Personnel Rules

Topping the list when it comes to systemic complexity is the government’s personnel system. The all-to-mysterious web of civil service laws and rules, most of them decades old, dictate almost every aspect of an executive’s day-to-day relationship with those that she or he leads. And whether it’s recruiting and hiring critical talent, rewarding a top contributor, or holding a poor performer accountable, the arcane, archaic rules make it too hard.

So, while preparing the SES corps for the 21st century is critical, it is even more important to give executives a human capital system that is equal to their excellence. And in our opinion, today’s civil service does not pass that test. As Robert Hale, former controller and chief financial officer at the Defense Department, explained in his chapter of Building a 21st Century SES, today’s government executives are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time on the minutiae of what should be the simplest things—hiring, appraising, rewarding, firing—instead of focusing their energies on the really big challenges facing our nation. Many of them simply surrender to the complexity.

To be sure, their frustrations are symptomatic of a far larger set of problems, which are just as serious (and subtle) as the ones that led NAPA to commission Building a 21st Century SES. It is not just the executive corps that is at risk. It is no exaggeration to say that without major reforms, the entire federal civil service may be as well.

Some may argue with this. After all, our civil servants continue to distinguish themselves every day, usually in ways that are invisible to the American public. Indeed, their unsung efforts allow our fellow citizens to take their excellence for granted, perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to a public servant. But the behind-the-scenes struggle to sustain that excellence is daunting.

The signs of long-term erosion are there, and that has NAPA worried. For example, the federal government has failed to attract its fair share of millennials. What is now the largest single segment of the American labor force (and population) is barely represented in the ranks of the federal civil service. And it’s not for their lack of interest.

A Latent Propensity for Public Service

Many millennials (and their predecessors from Generation X) seem to have a latent propensity for public service. They want the chance to have a sense of purpose, to make a difference, to grow and learn and contribute to the greater good. These are all things that the federal government should be able to offer, but when they consider it as a prospective employer, many of them—especially the best of them—do not find it all that welcoming or appealing.

We believe that most of the reasons for this are systemic, rooted in a civil service system that can no longer meet the demands of the day. For example, the government’s hiring rules—perhaps the most visible manifestation of its obsolescence—remain arcane and confusing to college graduates interested in civil service—indeed, they are arcane and confusing to us. Most would-be federal employees don’t even know how to go about applying, and that frustrates applicants and hiring managers alike.

But it’s not just the hiring process that drives the potential next generation of civil servants away.  It’s everything. Our current system was built for a 30-year career in one agency, in one occupation, even in one location. That’s just not attractive to young people today. Add to that a system that rewards longevity rather than accomplishment—and makes it nigh onto impossible to hold poor performers accountable—and it’s no wonder that the younger generation stays away.

Whether it’s due to impenetrable hiring rules and a pay system based on tenure, an employment brand that promises neither praise nor predictability, or the “opportunity” to work in shoddy offices with antique technology, millennials just don’t seem to see the federal government as a great place to work. And even those who actually seek out a career in the federal government can’t get hired. More than half of last year’s successful applicants for the elite Presidential Management Fellows program never even received an offer of employment from a federal agency.

A Secret Weapon in the War for Talent

There are exceptions, to be sure. Some agencies, like NASA, the CIA, the FBI and the SEC continue to attract the best and brightest millennials. But they have a secret weapon: They’ve essentially seceded from the grand old federal civil service.

These and other agencies have managed to cut deals with Congress for personnel flexibilities that are the envy of their institutional peers. And they’ve used those flexibilities to craft their own custom civil service systems that enable their executives and managers to apply state-of-the-art human capital practices without sacrificing such bedrock principles as merit, neutral competence and non-discrimination.

But what of the rest of the federal government? The Social Security Administration, the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services—not to mention big chunks of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs—all need their share of the talent pool. Yet by and large they don’t have the opportunity to create a mission-based, “designer” personnel system. Instead, they are mired in a one-size-fits-all system built for a government made up of an army of clerks tapping away at typewriters.

It’s no wonder that most of those old-line agencies are finding it more and more difficult to attract top talent. That downward trajectory will only continue if the labor market for top talent tightens even further.

Still, Leadership Matters

But we also know that leadership matters. Unless and until the civil service system is brought (perhaps kicking and screaming) into the 21st century, career executives will have to rise above government’s systemic constraints to ensure the continued excellence of our public service. Fortunately, we are blessed with a career executive corps that is truly dedicated to its cause and craft. But we cannot take that dedication for granted.   

Terry Gerton is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Ronald Sanders is a fellow of the academy and a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Photo: Flickr user jeadly

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