Striving for Excellence in Federal Management

When an administration prioritizes good management, government is capable of great things.

In less than four months, the Presidential campaigns will end and speculation will immediately focus on who will staff the new Administration. But management issues?  They’re unlikely to get much attention. That is, until they bite, as every Administration discovers, to its distress. To amend a phrase often employed, policy without good management is an invitation to political disaster and the reversal of the very policy objectives the Administration prizes.

The National Academy of Public Administration (of which we’re Fellows) is devoted to confronting the challenges of public management and how best to solve them. Academy Fellows span a wide range of experience at the federal, state and local levels, and include academic leaders who have extensively researched best practices. 

Energized by the recurring management problems of the past, the Academy polled its Fellows on which management issues the new President’s team ought to give early attention.  The Academy’s insights and recommendations are summarized in its new report, Transition 2016: Equipping the Government for Success in 2016 and Beyond. Four distinct areas emerged: 

Look beyond immediate problems to set longer-term objectives and anticipate issues. Each candidate has a long-term agenda and aspirations for the legacy with which he or she hopes to leave office. Strategic foresight offers a disciplined approach to identifying and analyzing scenarios that have the potential to either put policy objectives at risk or create opportunities for more effective action. Our recommendations include the President-elect establishing a 100-day governmentwide Foresight Test Taskforce to identify five to 10 future challenges to the President’s key priorities; systematically integrating foresight into policy development; and helping agencies develop and use foresight in decision-making.

Base decisions on evidence, as opposed to the emotions of the moment.  As W. Edwards Deming famously remarked, “In God we trust; all others bring data.” But his principle is not observed in government policy-making to the extent it should be. With each new Presidential administration, new initiatives are launched, old ones are tossed, and much of the progress gained in the past is lost. To address that, we recommend strengthening the use of data, evidence, evaluation, and innovation by government leaders, managers, front-line employees, those involved in service delivery, and other stakeholders in the allocation of resources and management of programs.

Persuade federal agencies to cooperate effectively and collaborate with all those involved in implementing any policy decision. One does not have to look far back to see the consequences of failing to collaborate across intra- and inter-governmental boundaries. The response to Hurricane Katrina and the botched Obamacare rollout—situations in which proper collaboration was not established—are prime examples of incidents that can derail a president’s agenda or tarnish an administration’s legacy. For the government to successfully collaborate across boundaries, it needs to invest early in building strong alliances. Spend the necessary time and resources to clarify expectations of roles and responsibilities in advance. Subsequent investments in relationship-building, laying a foundation of trust, and finding ways to celebrate individual and collective achievements early on will almost certainly pay off with improved policy implementation and government performance.

Mobilize the human capital so essential to success. People drive organizational success. To meet mission critical strategic goals and objectives, federal departments and agencies must recruit, develop, engage, and retain top talent. For example, selecting the right candidate with the appropriate qualifications required for a particular appointment can make the difference between early success and failure for the incoming Administration. Given the political constraints on compensation, the post-government employment restrictions and the lengthy appointment process for those subject to Senate confirmation, the new Administration will need to take a highly innovative approach to the recruitment and management of key personnel.

We do not pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom. Rather, we would like to start a dialogue now with the campaigns, so that management issues are part of the immediate agenda post-election. 

Our hope is straightforward: That we not repeat the mistakes of the past. The federal government has demonstrated management excellence in the past—as was seen in building the Panama Canal, constructing the interstate highway system and putting a man on the moon. While each of these was informed by a compelling policy vision, the fulfillment of those visions required superb management.

If we can realize that hope, the American public will be much the better for it, and perhaps regain some of the faith they have lost in a government that over the long reach of history has made our society so successful.   

David Chu and Edward DeSeve are the Co-Chairs of the Transition 2016 initiative at the National Academy of Public Administration.