Besieged, But Not Morose

Sampling senior executives' state of mind.

What's on the minds of senior federal executives a little more than a year into the Obama administration?

An unscientific sample of answers to that question was supplied by about 20 Senior Executive Service members who attended a mid-March Executive Summit organized by the Brookings Executive Education program, a partnership of the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

I was a speaker and "subject matter expert," along with former Office of Management and Budget official Jonathan Breul, now at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, New York University Professor Paul Light and others.

From the three days, I took away the impression that federal executives feel a bit besieged-unable to control the environments in which they work, unloved and micromanaged by Congress, and working in an atmosphere of low public trust in government.

A symptom of their plight is the current debate about what they're actually worth in the labor market. Conservative critics have been calling for cuts in federal pay on the grounds that even in a job-for-job match study (conducted by USA Today) most federal workers earn more than their private sector counterparts. OMB Director Peter R. Orszag told me in March that the administration had considered a pay freeze in light of the income woes of many millions in the private sector, before settling on a small increase. And now, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has named a task force to justify federal pay rates.

As Brookings' Darrell M. West told the group, we're in a time of high public cynicism about the political process and the operations of government. "The people don't trust politicians, and they don't think government is very effective in solving problems," he said. Our group of senior executives was loath to agree with negative public perceptions about government performance. They blamed the media for selling them short, and politicians for poisoning the atmosphere with anti-bureaucracy bullpuckey. While Congress is an essential partner for every agency, our group said that too often it micro- manages, delays needed legislation and ignores agency expertise on important issues.

Executive branch performance management also came under fire from the group. The old saw about duplication and overlap is true, they said, for example, in the intelligence community with its 16 separate agencies overseen by a new-and unproductive-layer of bureaucracy, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Light, a close student of bureaucracies, said the number of layers in agencies, as measured by new titles in the hierarchies, is up 25 percent to 40 percent in recent years. Participants said measuring results in many programs is difficult, that people are not rewarded on the basis of performance even when it can be defined, and a fear of failure induces program managers to "dumb down" performance measures so everyone can be seen as succeeding.

For all this, participants did not seem unhappy, and were clearly committed to their agencies' missions. A sizable contingent from the Veterans Affairs Department, for instance, spent hours discussing how they could better deliver on Obama's goal of finding jobs for the young, disabled veterans returning from current wars.

And the spirit of innovation was alive: Rodney Wood, the motorcycle-riding director of VA's Financial Services Center in Austin, Texas, told me he's just putting the finishing touches on an idea he had to simplify the complexities of moving people from one location to another. By linking the public and private suppliers of services connected to a change in location, he will simplify the lives of thousands of workers who are reassigned by VA, and perhaps other agencies, every year.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.