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Federal Agencies Can Succeed at Leadership Development Even Amid Tight Budgets

Data on the impact of training programs will help make the case for sustained funding.

Despite the importance of leadership for achieving agency missions, many federal agencies struggle to develop and sustain robust leadership development programs, particularly during times of budgetary crisis. How often have we heard the adage, “When budgets must be cut, training and development are among the first to go.”

We spent the last year interviewing federal leaders and reviewing research about effective leadership development programs. Based on our research, supported by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, we concluded that federal organizations are capable of mounting successful leadership development programs by adhering to some simple best practices.

We did, however, find that some issues need attention. One is measuring the return on investment of leadership development programming and the impact of such programming across the federal government. Federal leaders we interviewed stated that more systematic data regarding program effectiveness is needed to support budget increases for leadership development and to sustain funding during times of budgetary crisis or transitions in political leadership. Universities and organizations like the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration; the Partnership for Public Service; and the Volcker Alliance can support federal agencies in identifying systematic methods for evaluating program effectiveness.

We also found that agency efforts to design leadership programming are often ad hoc and independent, not connected to a governmentwide philosophy, strategy or expertise. The Office of Personnel Management needs to strengthen its capacity as a thought leader for best practices and to disseminate knowledge.

What we learned from the general leadership literature and our case agencies—the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, the Air Force Civilian Force and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division—provides strong direction for leadership development across the federal government.

These are our findings about best practices, grouped into the four phases of a leadership development cycle:

Initiating Leadership Programs. We identified three common features for initiating successful leadership programs from our cases:

  • Creating strong connections to agency mission and values;
  • Aligning leadership development with an urgent organizational need; and,
  • Finding a powerful champion. 

Designing and Delivering Effective Programs. Our cases mirrored two important evidence-based practices for designing and delivering effective programs:

  • Building multiple delivery methods—e .g ., executive coaching, mentoring, and action-based learning—into the program; and,
  • Organizing leader development across multiple sessions over time.

Measuring Program Effectiveness. Three common features for measuring program effectiveness emerged from our cases:

  • Triangulating data sources to build a comprehensive understanding of program effectiveness;
  • Building intentionality into data collection; and,
  • Long-term participatory assessments and evaluation to create employee buy-in.

Sustaining Effective Programs. Our case studies closely paralleled three best practices from the literature for sustaining effective programs:

  • Creating opportunities for continuous learning;
  • Fostering broad ownership in leadership development; and,
  • Aligning leadership development with other organizational systems.

We advocate for a future where federal agencies collect systematic data on program impact, adopt content unique to their agency missions, and deliver that content in ways that adhere to evidence on leadership programming.  

Bill Valdez is president of the Senior Executives Association. James L. Perry is distinguished professor emeritus and chancellor’s professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jenny Knowles Morrison is a research fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin. Gordon Abner is an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin.