Agency Deputies: We Get No Credit for Successes, and All the Blame for Failures

Some COOs say they feel like the sacrificial goat in Jurassic Park. Some COOs say they feel like the sacrificial goat in Jurassic Park. Vishnevskiy Vasily /

Agency chief operating officers, often the deputy secretary, “get no credit when things go well, and all the blame when they don’t,” according to one who answered the first published survey of COOs. “When I ask former deputy secretaries, ‘What’s the job description?’ they say, ‘See the tethered goat in Jurassic Park,’ ” another respondent said.

Released Wednesday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, the report based on interviews with 23 COOs and other Obama administration managers asserted that COOs are “charged with the thankless task of tackling everything from complex, long-standing and deeply ingrained management problems, to the successful execution of new program and policy goals.” And yet this executive “needs to be able to operate above the department’s or agency’s various policy, operating and support divisions, and ensure that these divisions are managed in a way that leads to high performance.”

Too often, the role is vaguely defined, inconsistent across government and only lightly institutionalized, the authors said. “Because the position is relatively new and not well defined in statute, there is little in the form of governmentwide guidance about the roles and responsibilities of COOs,” the report stated.

Many federal chief operating officers run organizations far more complex than private-sector companies, the report noted. The Defense and Homeland Security departments employ almost 1 million civilian employees, “more than many of our largest multinational companies like CocaCola (129,000 employees) and Google (40,000 employees),” it noted. The DHS budget is more than twice that of the state of New Jersey, and the Health and Human Services Department distributes more than $330 billion a year in grants and direct payments, compared with $3 billion by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Addressing the long-standing debate over the value of political appointees, some respondents “cited the clout and connections that political appointees enjoy as being critical to operating effectively as COO,” the report said. “However, appointees often have short tenures, so they inevitably face steep learning curves in absorbing everything they need to know to drive change in their agencies.”

The key challenges cited in the report are “broken” human capital systems, duplicative and uncoordinated management systems, mission-support functions that are often slow to innovate and adapt to changing technologies and mission priorities, and governmentwide management initiatives that “have great potential but currently lack practical impact.”

Asked to rate the government’s management reform results in various categories, respondents pointed to good progress in budgets, financial management and performance, but noted less improvement in acquisition, human capital and technology.

To help COOs become “the crucial bridge between mission and management,” the report made a series of recommendations for the president, Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the agencies and COO’s themselves. Among them:

  • The president should nominate COOs with substantial management experience and skills and hold them accountable for results.
  • Congress should confirm nominees quickly, enact civil service reform to boost performance and codify the President’s Management Council to allow more coordination across agencies.
  • OMB should issue guidance on the duties and responsibilities of COOs to ensure greater clarity and consistency in the role across government and set general qualifications for political appointees.
  • Agency leaders should eliminate department- or agency-level rules and procedures that perpetuate inefficiencies in mission-support functions as well as assign career leaders to senior management positions that support the COO.

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