For High-Performance Government, Deputy Secretaries Need to Act Like Chief Operating Officers

There is no substitute for a top leader’s focused attention—not memos from the executive suite, orders from OMB, or hearings by Congress.

Legislation is pending in Congress that would require every federal department to have a chief data officer and a chief evaluation officer. The bill, based on recommendations from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy, would advance data-driven decision-making in policy and management. Yet, standing alone, the new legislation would not be enough. A subtler, more fundamental change is required.

Every American relies on federal agencies, whether they are protecting our air and water, ensuring food-borne illnesses don’t sicken our population, maintaining our transportation infrastructure, keeping our workplaces safe and healthy, providing food assistance to the poor, or defending our nation. But who should bear overall responsibility, within agencies, for producing important societal outcomes like these? It has to be each department’s deputy secretary, the presidentially appointed second-in-command.

Federal law already designates deputy secretaries as chief operating officers, but this provision (in the GPRA Modernization Act) is little known and toothless. Some deputy secretaries have embraced their COO role, while others ignored or delegated their management duties and invested their time, instead, in policy, stakeholder outreach, White House meetings, public appearances, or other higher-profile aspects of the job. This isn’t a partisan issue. It was true for past administrations and remains true today.

Why must “dep secs” take responsibility for agencies’ outcomes and operational excellence? It sends a powerful signal to the entire organization that leadership is watching and performance, sound management, and outcomes matter. Cabinet secretaries have little time for operational issues. They are, and should be, the public faces and policy leaders of their organizations. Deputy secretaries are best positioned to lead and dig into the details of their organizations’ efforts on performance, planning, budgeting and results. That includes asking: How are our programs working? How can they become more effective and efficient? How can they partner effectively with states, localities, and stakeholders that often implement federal programs?  

A strong COO is also needed to play quarterback, corralling the various “chiefs” within the department (for acquisition, finance, information and performance) into a coordinated approach. That coordination is necessary to avoid a tug of war among chiefs, each with requirements cascading down from the White House Office of Management and Budget. With the likely introduction of two new chiefs—for data and evaluation—this will be even more important.

From our experience, when deputy secretaries embrace their COO roles, the effects can be dramatic, helping catalyze an organizational culture focused on continuous improvement. Merely asking the right questions persistently, and paying attention to the answers, can drive cultural change.  Managers and staff come to understand that data-driven management is how their organization does business. There is no substitute for a top leader’s personal, focused attention on performance issues—not memos from the executive suite, orders from OMB, or hearings by Congress.

How can we ensure that an engaged, capable COO leads more federal departments and agencies? First, the White House should select nominees for deputy secretary based on their commitment to embracing the COO role, data-driven management, and evidence-based policy. Similarly, in the confirmation process, Congress should set clear expectations that deputy secretaries will take personal responsibility for agency results and operational excellence. Several major agencies currently do not have a Senate-confirmed “second-in-command,” including Commerce, Education, Labor, Treasury and the EPA, so the White House and Congress could begin this effort today.

Second, the Office of Personnel Management, working with the Partnership for Public Service, should run a “COO boot camp.” This training should convey a range of strategies for driving results, including those used by agencies in the past. The Obama Administration’s Labor Department, for example, took a multi-pronged approach, including:

  • Convening quarterly meetings with each bureau head to review the performance measures in their operating plans
  • Linking managers’ performance ratings to their bureau’s performance
  • Making performance data available to all employees
  • Integrating performance data into the department’s budget
  • Creating an annual performance index to capture the Department’s overall performance
  • Launching a chief evaluation office and requiring learning agendas of each bureau to identify high-priority research questions

Third, large federal departments should consider extra steps, given the challenge of achieving results within vast bureaucracies. That could include creating two deputy secretary positions: one focused primarily on operational issues and the other focused externally. (The Obama Administration’s State Department had this structure.) Departments with sizable sub-agencies should also ensure each sub-agency has a senior career or appointed leader who acts as the COO.

Finally, Congress should engage with deputy secretaries on agency performance. It doesn’t have to be complicated: each committee or sub-committee should hold an annual hearing to review performance and management in each department under its jurisdiction. Those reviews should focus on how well the agency is meeting its strategic objectives outlined in its strategic plan.  

By taking these four steps, the Executive Branch and Congress can encourage more deputy secretaries to fully embrace their COO roles. That, in turn, would mean better outcomes for the American people and better value for taxpayers. If there is one goal that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on, it is getting the largest possible return from investments in existing programs and policies.

Andrew Feldman is a member of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative and hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He served on the Evidence Team of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Follow him on Twitter @AndyFeldman.

Seth Harris is an attorney and Executive in Residence at Cornell University’s Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He served as Deputy Secretary of Labor and Acting Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration. Follow him on Twitter @MrSethHarris.