Rising Agency Leaders Overwhelmingly Expect a Career in Government, Survey Finds

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Government agencies should push a sense of duty, provide opportunities for professional development, help build professional networks and implement mentor programs to form and maintain a pipeline of leadership, according to a new report.

Developing a cadre of “rising leaders” is especially critical today, the Volcker Alliance said in its report “Preparing Tomorrow’s Public Service: What the Next Generation Needs,” as the nation prepares for a wave of retiring government workers. The good news for agencies, however, is 75 percent of rising leaders responding to a Volcker survey of federal, state and local government officials expect to stay in government for the long term.

The forthcoming retirement boom, which good-government groups like Volcker have been warning about for years, makes professional development vital. According to Volcker’s survey, half of government leaders wish they had more access to training programs. The survey had 925 respondents primarily recruited through professional associations and schools of public affairs.

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Two-thirds of government leaders prefer a training location outside of their workplace, the survey found. Respondents said they particularly appreciated opportunities to remove themselves from their normal day-to-day responsibilities and instead focus on building relationships with leaders in other agencies and departments. Single-day presentations were significantly less popular than options such as executive coaching and multi-session courses.

Mentors played a particularly effective role; 83 percent of leaders with a mentor said they are meeting their career goals compared to just 51 percent without one. Professional associations can help establish mentoring networks, Volcker said.

Rising leaders value “soft skills,” such as interpersonal effectiveness and personal resilience, as the most important for their effectiveness. Front-line managers on the ground are most concerned with adapting to “scarce resources” and improving staff morale, according to the survey. Nearly 9 in 10 respondents said that helping their teams find “purpose and motivation” was among their most important responsibilities.

“Viewed from the rising leader’s perspective, interpersonal leadership supplies the vital energy that fuels government today,” the Volcker Alliance found.

Sydney Heimbrock, assistant director of the Center for Leadership Development at the Office of Personnel Management, said influence and collaboration are essential skills in today’s environment.

“In theory, if we are continuing to find government institutions critically underfunded, then it is equally important for someone in management to know how to analyze data as well as to lead people across sectors,” Heimbrock said.

State and local leaders value responsiveness to the public more highly than those in the federal government, the Volcker Alliance found. The group stressed the importance of recruiting individuals who hold intrinsic public service motivations into government, though it said the skill could be cultivated with proper training. Millennials may be better suited than their elders to respond to the public’s needs, the Alliance said, in part by leveraging social media and other digital technologies.

“There is a huge opportunity, a seismic shift in managers’ and leaders’ awareness that business as usual doesn’t work,” Heimbrock said. “People coming into the government workforce now are more attuned to the social dimension of everything we do. Digital natives find it natural to go and talk to citizens online. That opens up new approaches to democracy.”

Other important skills the Volcker Alliance identified involve data and technology, business acumen and navigating the political environment. Eight in 10 respondents said it was important to maintain their integrity in a “highly partisan” era.

The Volcker Alliance said government agencies are facing management challenges “of immense scale and complexity,” but the group was optimistic its recommendations would “prove a catalyst for action at all levels of government.”

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