Survey: Federal Senior Execs Lack Sufficient Authority to Drive Change

Career leaders “don’t feel empowered,” professional association says.

Career leaders filling the government’s 9,100 senior executive positions harbor strong hopes for agency reform, but express worry about an ineffective recruitment pipeline and insufficient authority to drive positive change, according to a survey released on Wednesday.

Only 22 percent feel their agency is well prepared to retain top talent, according to the survey of 750 Senior Executive Service members conducted by the Senior Executives Association and Deloitte Consulting LLP. About 59 percent of respondents said there are development opportunities to help build leadership capabilities, but only 36 percent said their development needs are taken into account when determining areas of responsibility. And less than half believe current leaders understand how to effectively manage a multi-generational workforce.

“While the survey results show how deeply career senior leaders care about their organizations, many leaders do not feel empowered with the right tools and support to make these changes a reality,” said SEA President Bill Valdez in a release.

The Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to reorganize agencies to achieve private-sector-inspired efficiencies is hampered because the White House “is not rapidly filling the senior political staff positions—there is a real leadership vacuum,” Valdez told Government Executive. “We would highly encourage them to work collaboratively with career senior executives to advance their agenda.”

Valdez also said he doesn’t think the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget are “truly focused on the leadership pipeline. We think there’s an emerging crisis” indicated by significant gaps in leadership development programs at all levels. “The short-term issue is that we don’t have an existing cadre of people for backup,” he said. “The long-term issue is that if the retirement wave continues, we will be in a world of hurt.”

Only 28 percent of the survey’s respondents felt their agencies had systems in place to enable knowledge-sharing across government leadership. “Agencies are not prepared for the future of work, and even the most senior executive leaders believe significant innovation and collaboration are discouraged by institutional or cultural barriers,” survey analysts wrote.

Among the recommendations offered are that government leadership development and training programs focus more on making agency leaders life-long learners to keep them at the forefront of innovation. “Three things are essential,” said one respondent: “dedication to life-long learning; ability to manage and leverage talent across generations; and understanding and driving meaningful workplace change as more and more human labor is automated.”

Another cited the importance of having career SESers with “emotional intelligence.” Only 57 percent responded that career senior leaders are selected based on leadership capability in addition to functional expertise.

SEA and Deloitte recommended that agencies:

  • Use evidence-based assessments to identify high-potential individuals with leadership skills, not just technical expertise;
  • Design leadership development and training programs that build leadership capabilities through challenging experiences and frequent exposure to diverse leaders inside and outside the organization; and,
  • Focus on re-evaluating the work and the workforce of tomorrow in order to make hiring decisions, as opposed to just filling open needs.

Calling the survey the “first of its kind,” Valdez stressed that the new data offer more than the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey by focusing on the future and by “distinguishing between career leaders and political leaders” when asking employees about whether leaders are effective.