As Agencies Tackle Reform, Here Are Federal Leaders’ Biggest Worries

Whatever your immediate concerns are as a leader, remember that uncertainty trickles down.

In certain ways, the Office of Management and Budget’s unveiling of its governmentwide reform plan in June brought additional clarity for agency leaders. Along with the Trump administration’s budget request and president’s management agenda, they now have reform guidance to pair with established strategic plans. But this clarity also brings increased pressure to start transforming.  

While every department is dealing with a unique set of issues, a few common themes are emerging as leaders tackle reform. When my phone rings these days, here are the key challenges that come up—and my words of advice for each:

We know the President’s budget will change in Congress. This interim funding uncertainty feels like the “new normal,” and it makes it extremely difficult to plan for the long term.

Today’s uncertainty is especially relevant for non-defense agencies facing large proposed budget cuts. Congress may ultimately level out their funding, but in the short term these agencies are being asked to take on large-scale reform with fewer resources.

The good news is that efforts to improve organizational effectiveness, customer service, and IT modernization have enjoyed broad support from the executive branch and Congress through multiple administrations.

The administration’s guidance embodied in the president’s management agenda and cross-agency priority goals may have its own flavor, but my advice to leaders during this period of uncertainty is to leverage applicable models from previous improvement efforts. This can significantly help to accelerate your own reforms.

Additionally, leaders should actively solicit improvement ideas from agency personnel who are eager to be at the table. Far too often, their input isn’t considered by leadership or is actively ignored. But many employees have lived the agency’s mission for a long time and understand what has and hasn’t worked (and why), and what hasn’t yet been tried. By engaging these key champions, leaders can more efficiently and confidently prioritize initiatives with a richer perspective. (Watch our discussion about creating a culture of innovation in government with the Partnership for Public Service).

My leadership team is constantly preparing for our next report-out. We've only just started on agency priority goals, but we feel like we’re always explaining or defending our decisions.

OMB is responsible for holding departments accountable for budget use and goal tracking; and Congress is frequently requesting progress updates. Too many agency leaders see these moments as checking a box, and they only interact with those stakeholders when it’s required—but that’s a sure recipe for adversity.  

Rather, it’s critical to set a regular cadence of informal, relationship-building meetings with your OMB and congressional stakeholders in between your formal interactions to clarify expectations and understand how they define success. Use this time to build goodwill and share your agency’s success stories. Even better, invite stakeholders out to see your delivery of services first-hand.

The benefit is you’ll find it much easier to deal with issues when they arise. When I was at the Commerce Department, our big priority was developing an interagency model for greater return on grant investment funding—to taxpayers and to the communities we served. There was agreement with congressional stakeholders on the mission, but strong disagreement over how exactly to achieve it. However, since my colleagues and I had already developed positive working relationships with our stakeholders, we were able to effectively collaborate and find alternative ways to address our shared mission. I won’t say it was painless, but it wasn’t adversarial—and both sides felt confident that the other was acting in good faith.

We’re tackling a significant reform agenda without key political positions filled. Many career executives at the helm don’t want to push too hard without clear political direction.

First I’ll say that career executives have an advantage with key stakeholder relationships, as discussed above. Political leaders may come into office without established support from OMB, Congress, and others, but career leaders have been around. Often crossing multiple administrations, they have had years to lock in strong relationships outside the agency.

But addressing the challenge at hand, there are certainly many career executives who are in acting positions, and they indeed have a dilemma: If they move forward now, will the eventual political appointee just change course? If they don’t act, are they putting the agency’s mission at risk?

The most effective career leaders I’ve worked with have focused on “managing up.” If there’s no political leader directly above you, engage with the political leadership writ large—proactively set up regular check-ins to understand their expectations and how they’re defining success. Seek to understand what’s in your control, and use the clarity you have (from the president’s management agenda and your agency’s strategic plan) to make immediate decisions. Communicate regularly with political leadership above you, and, most importantly, ensure that those individuals are never caught off guard by your actions.

Whatever your immediate concerns are as a leader, remember that uncertainty trickles down: Your employees are looking to understand their own roles, how the reform plans impact them, and how they can contribute to the efforts. In your lanes of control, use every opportunity to create clarity and transparency for your staff. Because at the end of the day, transformation isn’t carried out at the top—it happens through your people.

Matt Erskine is an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, supporting government clients with reform and transformation strategies. He previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, and Chief Operating Officer of the Economic Development Administration. For leadership guidance during transformation, read Booz Allen’s latest report with Harvard University Professor Steven Kelman.

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