Harry How/AP

Enterprise Leadership

We need people who can work beyond their agencies to address public issues.

For 35 years, American University’s School of Public Affairs has conferred a public service award named after the late Roger W. Jones, an exemplary civil servant who helped lead the Bureau of the Budget in the 1940s and ’50s.

As a judge in the awards program, I have learned about many federal officials who have played essential roles in their agencies and the life of our nation. 

Among this year’s nominees for the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership is a naval weapons research specialist who has made a huge contribution to building systems crucial to national defense, and another Defense Department executive who’s led development of high-tech training programs that have cost-efficiently prepared forces for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s the Ph.D. economist who is a leading expert on analysis of the effects of mergers on the American consumer, and a masterful mediator whose skills were critical to saving this year’s National Hockey League season. Nominees also include the Health and Human Services Department lawyer who expertly defended Obamacare against legal attack, and a top behavioral scientist in the field of drugs and mental health.

All of these stars in the federal firmament perform at the highest levels in and sometimes outside their agencies. 

In a world where the most pressing problems cannot be solved from the confines of agency silos, the people who make their mark are those who grasp the larger environment and recognize that they must seek help even from stakeholders with whom they have precious little sway. Some of the nominees operate in diffuse worlds: a regional Social Security official who has struck alliances with many other agencies, outside groups and even rock and roll legend Chubby Checker to promote health programs and other services among vulnerable populations; and an intelligence official who has contributed to making the sum of his community greater than its manifold parts.

The importance of looking beyond one’s own backyard, of peering around corners to discern what’s not obvious, is of particular importance in the national security realm. Key influencers, such as parents and teachers, are increasingly inclined to recommend against military service. The military still ranks among the most respected American institutions, but its favorability ratings took a precipitous nine-point drop with revelations of sexual harassment. The climate of public opinion is not readily influenced by the military brass, and they’re concerned about its effects on recruitment.

Many public problems are similarly beyond any institution’s control. And that puts a premium on people with the skills to reach across public and private boundaries in pursuit of common goals. A new book from the Brookings Institution coins a phrase to describe such talent: “enterprise leadership.” 

The authors, Jackson Nickerson and Ron Sanders, observe that federal agencies are “cylinders of excellence.” Many address problems that range beyond their own cylinders, yet cannot find a leader—even the president—to dictate either the means or outcomes. A few steps have been taken to broaden the horizons of federal leaders, notably joint duty requirements in the military and the intelligence community. These address the need for interagency collaboration. But little has been done to prepare them for dealing with the mix of state and local government, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and sometimes international players essential to finding comprehensive approaches to challenges like poverty, hunger, deficient health outcomes, natural disasters and terrorism. The Senior Executive Service has done a poor job of offering opportunities for such learning, an Office of Personnel Management official suggests in one chapter of the book. 

Perhaps the real leaders in addressing societal issues are not in Washington. More and more they’re found in local government. They are people like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and intergovernmental planner William Stafford of Seattle, who see federal programs as but one part of a mosaic of efforts needed to improve the lives of citizens.

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