Survey: Feds beat private sector on vision, lag on management

Federal managers tend to be more enthusiastic about their work and more committed to their organizations' missions than their counterparts in the private sector, a new survey shows.

The survey, conducted by McKinsey & Co. in partnership with Government Executive, found that the federal government earns higher marks than the private sector on questions relating to what McKinsey calls the "heart of an organization." Federal managers say they understand and embrace the direction and vision set by senior leaders and are motivated to perform their work.

Using a list of Government Executive subscribers, McKinsey surveyed 513 federal managers across 52 departments. Respondents were about evenly split between those in the Senior Executive Service and in the GS 12-15 ranks. The responses were then compared to the results of a similar McKinsey survey previously deployed at about 400 private sector organizations worldwide. While the nonfederal surveys included employees from all levels of organizations, McKinsey estimated that all but about 15 percent of the respondents to those surveys were in the managerial and executive ranks.

Almost 70 percent of federal respondents said their agency's vision was meaningful to its employees. More than half said people join the agency because of its culture and values, compared to only 37 percent in the private sector.

But the government fell short on operational elements, such as fostering accountability and ensuring coordination and control. Only 55 percent of federal respondents said they received explanations of what they must achieve in their jobs, compared to 68 percent in the private sector. While 56 percent of private sector respondents said their agency "holds challenging reviews to evaluate business performance against plans," only 38 percent of federal respondents agreed.

"There's a real opportunity here," said McKinsey principal Eric Braverman. "What these federal managers are telling us really clearly is, 'We understand what our leadership is asking us to do and we want to do it. We're ready to do it.' That is the clear message. At the same time, they're also telling us they need some management practices to help them improve performance."

In order to meet those performance improvement goals, McKinsey recommended agencies put into place a three-part action plan:

  • Engage employees to gain their input, earn their commitment and ensure an open and trusting environment. Only 29 percent of GS 12-15 managers reported that they were consulted on issues that affect them compared to 43 percent of the SES and 40 percent of private sector respondents.
  • Strengthen talent management practices. Only 29 percent of federal respondents said they get helpful coaching compared to 41 percent in the private sector.
  • Improve accountability measures. Only 38 percent of federal respondents reported their agencies hold challenging reviews to evaluate performance against plans compared to 56 percent in the private sector.

"Leaders who want to implement these recommendations will have to decide what to do first," Braverman said. "What we find is there are some really specific things they can do -- engage the workforce. They're telling us very directly that their leaders can engage them because they want to get the work done. Let's put in some really specific things to help drive accountability. Let's create the talent practices that will help us be successful."

The data also exposed a potential obstacle to reform -- a gap in perception between senior executives and GS 12-15 managers. In each category, the SES respondents gave the government higher marks than the GS 12-15 respondents. Braverman said this indicates that leaders are going to have to consider how each initiative uniquely affects both groups. "Clearly what they're reporting is different experiences in an organization, so you'd want to customize how you roll out any given program to reflect their individual needs," he said.

Click here for a full summary of the survey results

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