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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Managing Under the Specter of Sequestration

A lot of people don’t really believe a budget sequester will happen. The hope is that, similar to government’s near shutdowns in 2011, Congress and the White House will find a way to avert massive across-the-board spending cuts before they take effect in January 2013. But plenty of federal managers and employees are worried there won’t be a Hollywood ending this time, and as of early fall, leaders weren’t providing much guidance on planning for the budget Armageddon.

There’s been a lot of public hand-wringing over potential cuts to government activities ranging from air traffic control to food safety inspection—and the thousands of federal jobs at stake if the budget ax falls. Office of Management and Budget guidance to agencies, however, has been scant and the official line so far has been: Keep doing what you would normally be doing because sequestration probably isn’t going to happen. 

OMB released a congressionally mandated report in September that was heavy on numbers but light on analysis. The only sure thing was the automatic governmentwide cuts would total about $1.2 trillion, be spread evenly from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2021, and would be divided equally...

Managing Spies and Civil Liberties

At the National Security Agency, compliance with information-sharing policies and privacy laws means protecting civil liberties. That’s where John DeLong comes in. In 2009, he filled a new position at NSA: compliance director. The gig involves coordinating with analysts throughout the chain of command to pre-empt potential violations, as well as cooperating with other NSA oversight managers to avoid stepping on toes. 

“We’re nothing if we lose the confidence of the American people,” DeLong says. “The creation of this position is a very outward sign of an inward focus—a focus that existed before the creation of my position. We’re constantly learning. We’re constantly trying to draw best practices externally, and . . . we’re trying to also contribute and be part of that discussion about compliance best practices.”

DeLong, 37, also must ensure inanimate surveillance tools follow the rules. Seems like that should be a breeze for a man who holds degrees in law, physics and math from Harvard University. Government Executive recently sat down with DeLong to find out. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.  

Q: Critics have accused NSA of being a rogue organization doing its own thing. But there are checks and...

It Can Pay To Be Willing To Fail

How do you spur innovation in government? Be willing to fail. How do you make government willing to fail? Make failure cheap. That’s the idea behind Development Innovation Ventures, run by Maura O’Neill, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s chief innovation officer.

The program takes a venture capital approach to development, passing out grants to applicants with strong ideas but insisting they have plans to make their products and services sustainable.

If the projects go kaput, USAID isn’t out as much money as it would be with a conventional contract. If the projects show promise, the agency will have made a difference in people’s lives without a major investment or commitment.

“We’ve seen for-profit startups that have never been in development before but think maybe they can repurpose their invention,” she says. “We’ve seen people who have spent their entire lives in development but have never quite had the ability to come forward with what they believe are breakthrough ideas.”

DIV-funded initiatives have ranged from a low-cost, tampon-like balloon that stops post-childbirth hemorrhaging to a sticker on minibus windows urging passengers to report the driver for speeding.

“We think the government more...

Reining in Rage

Workplace anger is dangerous. It sometimes leads to violence, making homicide one of the top four causes of death in the workplace and causing 15,000 nonfatal injuries annually. But even when it doesn’t reach that level, workplace anger can affect employees’ health, happiness and performance if not dealt with quickly.

Jude Bijou, therapist and author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life (Riviera Press, 2011), has spent decades helping people view and manage their anger by encouraging them to see it as a physical state that can be remedied. Bijou writes that she has found unexpressed sadness, anger and fear to be at the root of all bad attitudes. By expelling these physical sensations from the body -- releasing that bad energy by sobbing, stomping, shivering, whatever is most effective -- people can create more positive attitudes.

This insight is helpful for managers in two respects. First, like everyone else, managers must learn to control their own anger. And the added responsibility and inevitable frustrations that come with being a supervisor can cause anger to build. Additionally, managers likely will benefit if they have a better understanding of employees’ attitudes. If a supervisor approaches a bad attitude...

What's Your Natural Leadership Style?

At some point in their education, most students are required to take the Myers-Briggs test, a psychological questionnaire designed to pinpoint personality types. The idea is to help teachers and counselors identify learning styles and possible career paths for their charges. Managers would be wise to embrace the idea that understanding your personality type—or your leadership style—can help you be more effective. 

One of the most respected lists of styles comes from the 2000 Harvard Business Review study “Leadership That Gets Results” by Daniel Goleman. The survey of more than 3,000 managers identified the following leadership styles and their benefits and weaknesses: 

Coercive: This manager demands immediate compliance, employing a “do what I say” approach. Goleman says this personality trait can be extremely effective in dealing with a crisis or a problem employee. In most situations, however, coercive leaders dampen motivation and stifle innovation and flexibility. 

Authoritative: This manager focuses on the ultimate goal, stating it clearly and urging employees to reach it, but allowing freedom to choose the means. An authoritative leader’s skill is to mobilize the team toward a desired result, which gives employees space to experiment and take calculated risks. This approach tends...