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A management quiz for political appointees

The General Accounting Office has compiled a list of questions aimed at uncovering the leadership qualities, or lack thereof, of each political appointee who goes through the Senate confirmation process.

GAO's list, included in a report released this week ("Confirmation of Political Appointees: Eliciting Nominees' Views on Leadership and Management Issues," GGD-00-174), was requested by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia. Voinovich asked GAO to help Senators ensure nominees are capable of leading government programs.

"We believe that asking questions on selected leadership and management issues will send a strong message that the Senate considers such issues to be a priority for all nominees for senior agency positions," GAO said.

The selected issues should sound familiar to seasoned federal managers. GAO singled out results-oriented decisionmaking, financial management, information technology and human capital management as the areas in which future government leaders must be proficient. All of those areas except human capital have been addressed through major pieces of legislation in the 1990s.

The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act required agencies to write mission statements, set goals and measure performance; the 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act established guidelines for reporting on agencies' finances; and the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act mandated that federal agencies take an integrated approach to information technology. The issue of human capital management has yet to be addressed in comprehensive legislation, but issues such as workforce recruitment and development have received high-level attention in recent months from the President, the Office of Personnel Management and the Comptroller General.

GAO admitted that the questions may have limited use. "Realistically, there may be too many questions to expect each nominee to answer them all, and some questions may not be appropriate for all nominees," the report said. Still, if Senators asks the right questions, "then future Presidents may place added importance on ensuring that nominees have the requisite leadership and management experience for their positions before submitting their names for confirmation," GAO said.

Possible Questions on Key Management Issues

Results-Oriented Decisisonmaking

1. During your tenure in this appointed position, what key performance goals do you want to accomplish, and how would this committee know whether you have accomplished them?

2. To successfully lead an organization into the future, a leader must be able to create and share a vision that inspires people to follow. In your past experience, what specific steps have you taken to successfully create a vision for an organization, and how did you make sure that the entire organization had a common understanding of the mission and was aligned so that it could be accomplished?

3. Describe two or three tangible examples of instances where your personal leadership skills were essential in getting your employees to accomplish a challenging goal. How could those leadership abilities help you in the position for which you have been nominated?

4. Since the mid-1960s, there has been a general decline in the public's trust in government. A 1999 survey found that just 29 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. The disconnect between the government and the citizens it serves has constrained the government's ability to attract and retain qualified employees with the skills necessary to improve program performance. What skills do you have that could prove useful in trying to reverse this troubling trend, and describe instances where you used these skills effectively.

5. What characteristics do you believe a results-oriented leader and effective manager in the federal government must possess? Can you provide a self-assessment on each characteristic you cite?

6. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) is intended to provide managers with a disciplined approach-developing a strategic plan, establishing annual goals, measuring performance and reporting on the results-for improving performance and service quality, increasing customer satisfaction and strengthening internal management. What are your views on this law and your experience with it, as well as your preliminary ideas on how this law might be implemented? What experiences have you had in supporting individuals or teams that analyzed root causes, developed solutions and set goals, as well as used data to measure and systematically improve program performance, service quality and customer satisfaction?

7. Are you familiar with the strategic plan, annual performance plans, annual accountability report and financial statements of your prospective agency? What do you consider to be the most important priorities and challenges facing the agency as it strives to achieve its goals? What changes, if any, do you feel might be necessary in these plans?

8. Virtually all the results that the federal government attempts to achieve are accomplished only if the efforts of a vast network of state and local government and private sector contractors and partners are effectively coordinated. For example, much of the federal government's domestic agenda-from mass transit to community mental health-is accomplished in part by providing grants and other technical assistance and support to state and local governments and third parties. Federal agencies, by working closely with their state and local partners, can instill performance-based approaches to managing intergovernmental programs that seek to maximize both results and state and local flexibility. Describe the skills and experience that you have that will prove helpful in developing and leading intergovernmental performance-based partnerships.

9. What is your experience in working with Congress or other legislative bodies responsible for the authorization, funding and oversight of government programs? Specifically, describe any experience you have in working on a bipartisan basis to identify statutory changes that can improve program efficiency and effectiveness, as well as in fostering and responding to legislative oversight.

10. In the private sector, a company must be customer-focused to survive. How important do you think a customer focus is for the public sector, and what would you do to make sure your agency identified its customers, understood their expectations and established performance goals and measures to meet those expectations, consistent with other priorities?

Financial Management

11. What are your views on the importance and role of financial information in managing operations and holding managers accountable?

12. How would you address a situation in which you found that reliable, useful and timely financial information was not routinely available for these purposes?

13. What is your background in using cost information to analyze the performance, manage the operation and modify the activities of large and complex programs?

14. How would your experience in these areas be useful in effectively administering government programs?

15. What is your view on the importance and role of internal controls (i.e., management controls) in effectively meeting missions, goals and objectives?

Information Technology Management

16. Based on your experience, please explain the role technology should play in your agency to support mission needs. What measures would you implement to show the impact technology has in meeting these needs?

17. How would you determine whether your agency has in place the key information management processes required by law, including a detailed architecture (both business and technical), an investment control process and computer security plans? What role do you envision you would play in managing or providing oversight over these processes? How would you go about implementing or improving these processes?

18. Based on your experience, how would you assess your core mission and business processes to identify opportunities for reengineering and for the enhanced use of technology? What challenges do you believe your agency may face in reengineering and using technology? In using e-government? In hiring and retaining qualified information technology professionals?

Human Capital Management

19. GPRA envisions that agencies will link their human capital planning with their strategic and annual plans. However, we found that most agency plans did not sufficiently address how human capital will be used to achieve results. Can you describe your experience in building and maintaining the human capital needed to achieve results (getting the right employees for the job and providing the training, structure, incentives and accountability to work effectively)? More generally, describe your experience in integrating human capital considerations and planning into programmatic planning.

20. Describe your experience in evaluating workforces (factors such as age, attrition rates, diversity and skills imbalances) to identify the most challenging human capital issues, and discuss how you propose dealing with these issues in your agency over the next several years.

21. Agency leaders can use various methods to access human capital: hiring full-time career employees, hiring limited-term employees and contracting for services. What experience do you have in using these methods to achieve your goals, and what are the advantages/disadvantages of each?

22. If you have spoken with your predecessors-those who have held the position you now seek-about their "lessons learned" on how to manage the agency effectively, describe how their advice and experience has influenced your thinking and plans.

23. What key differences do you see in managing a public versus private sector organization (e.g., the code of government ethics)? Can you provide a self-assessment of your leadership capabilities for dealing effectively with those differences?

24. High-performance organizations draw on the strengths of employees at all levels and maintain honest two-way communications. Based on your experience, how would you assess your agency's capability for two-way communication, and what preliminary ideas do you have to promote such communication in your agency?

25. The federal government's workforce has undergone significant downsizing in the past several years, and with the current tight labor market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent. How would you work, within current rules, to attract and retain individuals with the experience, education and skills needed by your agency?

26. Numerous GAO reports have highlighted the need for agencies to expend more resources on effective training and professional development programs to better equip federal employees for the workplaces of the future. Based on your experience, what priority would you place on workplace development, and how would you emphasize continuous learning in your agency?

27. To what extent, if any, do you believe that federal employees' pay should be more closely tied to their agencies' strategic and annual performance goals, and why?

28. High-performance organizations have a performance culture that effectively involves and empowers employees to improve operational and program performance while ensuring accountability and fairness for all employees. In fostering a performance-oriented culture, agencies may focus on (1) working with unions to develop buy-in on goals and strategies, (2) providing the training that staff need to work effectively, and (3) devolving authority while focusing on accountability on results. Describe the range of experiences you have had in using each of these strategies to instill a results orientation throughout an organization.

29. To become a high-performance organization, an agency needs senior leaders who are drivers of continuous improvement. What is the best approach for motivating career employees, or any employees for that matter, to achieve excellence?

30. Political appointees who create and maintain constructive working relationships with civil servants, including members of federal unions, can improve employee morale, increase performance and lower costs. Describe your specific experience involving "front-line" employees in achieving results.

31. High-performance organizations maintain an environment characterized by inclusiveness and diversity of styles and personal backgrounds. Based on your experience, what is your vision for creating and maintaining this kind of workplace environment?