‘C’ Is for Change

As agency chiefs take the lead on financial, technology and personnel reforms, they see hurdles to innovation.

The Obama administration has unveiled myriad initiatives to improve the business of government, but objectives ranging from financial reforms to information security have been difficult to implement-especially as they trigger changes in the way agencies work. A recent study from the Government Business Council, Government Executive Media Group's research division, shows chief executives and their staffs face unprecedented challenges as they strive to innovate.

The chiefs of finance, information, information security and human resources are the stewards of programs as varied as financial system modernization, open government, data security and hiring reform, all while coping with increased budgetary pressures. Top managers believe many of the initiatives are important, but low on their agencies' list of priorities, according to the April survey of 148 Senior Executive Service members and GS-15s.

"It is difficult to get senior agency officials to agree or prioritize these matters as so many other initiatives also are a high priority," said one respondent. "We are too reactive; to successfully implement these efforts would require thought and planning."

An Uphill Climb

One of the most innovative efforts is the 25-point plan that federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra unveiled in December 2010. It calls for agencies to cut costs by adopting a "cloud first" policy of moving technology systems to Web-based services. Top managers see great potential for change because, as one respondent said, "historically IT has not been a high agency priority." But they report a lack of resources for moving systems to the cloud.

"There is a lot of 'hype' about these initiatives, although it seems to be more talk than action," said one commenter.

Most agencies are facing budgetary constraints, and many managers recognize the increased burden on chief financial officers. Innovation in financial management will not be easy, according to the survey. More than 60 percent of respondents said it will be "very" or "extremely" difficult to respond to cost pressures; only 24 percent said it will lead to significant reforms.

Management challenges have increased for chief human capital officers as well. Nearly half the senior managers said hiring reforms, such as streamlined recruiting processes and telework, will be "very" or "extremely difficult" to implement. Executives believe hiring reform and the new Human Resources University could prove successful if execution can be managed. The first phase of HR University, a website launched in February by the Office of Personnel Management and the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council, offers information and resources for current and future HR professionals. When all phases are up and running, the university also will offer classroom and online training courses and a certification program.

Most senior managers are unfamiliar with the initiatives under way in the offices of information technology and security chiefs, according to the survey. More than 40 percent consider the open government directive and the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act to be strictly the domain of technology officials. Yet attentive technology management is relevant for most executives: More than 70 percent surveyed have agency-issued laptop computers and 76 percent carry smartphones.

Politically Charged

Half the managers surveyed agree that the leadership role of agency C suites has increased in recent years. A full 52 percent have seen responsibility at the top of their organizations increase "significantly" or "somewhat" in the past five years. And they expect pressure from amplified congressional oversight and White House-appointed czars will continue to mount.

Those challenges are complicated by strained relationships among senior executives and the political appointees they work with. The GBC survey reveals skepticism about the ability of political appointees to improve agency performance. One respondent said, "The role [of senior leadership] has increased, but the effectiveness, skill and knowledge has dramatically decreased."

The potential for conflict between career and political managers is not new, but survey respondents rated Obama appointees lower than those in previous administrations. Obama appointees earned a C average, or 2.0, compared with a 2.3 for those in the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. More than 30 percent gave Obama appointees a D or an F for overall job performance, while only 20 percent awarded past appointees such low marks.

Obama officials lack functional and agency-specific knowledge, according to survey respondents. Many believe appointees don't understand human resources and procurement rules, saying they presume the "institution is there as an obstruction" and therefore attempt to "break organizations."

Appointees have "unbelievably poor communication with career employees," one commenter said. Forty percent of managers gave them Ds or Fs on collaboration and communication with their staffs. Some "have a divide-and-conquer strategy, and there are way too many industry fingers allowed in decision-making," a respondent noted. At another agency, a manager said the result has been "politicization of normal agency functions."

A New Chief

The 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act required each agency to appoint a chief operating officer to lead performance improvement initiatives.

Managers surveyed believe functional improvements are necessary, but naming a COO "isn't the answer," one respondent said. Some fear the position will merely add a layer of bureaucracy, rather than boost innovation.

According to federal managers, the law's new reporting requirements are likely to bring about paperwork, rather than performance improvement. Chief operating officer initiatives would merely increase work for career managers, one executive noted.

One-fifth of respondents said they expect an increase in planning and measurement from the COO-the institution of "countables"-to spur better performance. But managers worry that before an operations chief can achieve results, the next administration will undo the changes. With a chief operating officer on board, business could simply "continue as usual," one commenter said.

Senior managers responsible for implementing sweeping changes at their agencies see potential for innovation, but many feel caught in the middle between Congress, the White House and an American public at odds over policy, appropriations and implementation. The results remain to be seen, but all eyes are on the C suites.

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