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.

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