SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Opinion: This Is Why the President’s Management Agenda Is Poised for Real Success

The strategy is smart to focus on empowering federal employees and building better relationships between management and unions.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have laid out a focused president’s management agenda that represents the best of modern day management principles in order to improve the performance of government agencies, especially how agencies interact with the American people. Importantly, the President’s Management Council has approved the strategies. But it also must drive these strategies to be successful.

I have been observing and interacting with various management reforms since I arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1978 in time to witness the debate and passage of the Civil Service Reform Act. At times, there have been good thoughtful reforms offered. Too often, the strategies represented the latest fad or outdated management thinking repackaged with updated jargon.

The Biden-Harris management agenda builds upon the good work of the past and focuses on a few key modern approaches that can really make a difference for immediate and long-term performance.

Strengthening and Empowering the Federal Workforce

If you want the federal government to function at its highest performance levels, one must recognize that the people—today and tomorrow—who make up the government workforce are key.  In recent decades, the federal workforce has largely been ignored, or worse, attacked by some policymakers and presidents with anti-workforce policies. The Biden-Harris agenda:

  1. Recognizes and values the entire workforce for their knowledge, skills, experience, passions and commitment to the mission;
  2. Recognizes that workforce engagement and empowerment of both the management and non-management employees must be included if agency performance is to be significantly enhanced; and,  
  3. Recognizes that roughly 70% or more of the eligible employees have a collective union voice that is to be respected if you value the employees themselves.

For decades, there have been a multitude of reports calling for the workforce be strengthened in order to meet the changing environment. The often-repeated response has been that the workforce is simply a cost to be controlled rather than seeing it as the engine of government performance. Budget cuts and uncompetitive salaries over the years have made it difficult to impossible to hire and develop the workforce with the needed skills. As a result, there are very justifiable concerns that age demographic problems are undermining the transfer of critical knowledge.

Until funding for needed positions and higher salaries is provided, there is little hope of retaining, developing and recruiting the best people for every occupation year in and year out. Agencies cannot achieve sustained higher performance without properly aligning the workforce with their missions and keeping it aligned. 

The non-managerial employees have tremendous operational knowledge and a true desire to be involved in improving agency performance. They often interface with the agency’s customers to a far greater extent than top managers. The non-managerial employees see the shortcomings and potential solutions to the systems, tools and technologies they use every day. Yes, managers also have incredible important knowledge that they bring to the table. But it is only collaboration of managers and rank-and-file employees that enables vastly improved solutions as well as the full commitment to implement those solutions.

The best ideas with poor implementation do not see desired outcomes. The best ideas with great implementation realize their maximum potential. A critical understanding for high organizational performance is that people are committed to implement the solutions they help create.

With about 70% or more of the eligible federal workforce represented by unions, the management agenda recognizes that successful engagement with that large segment of the workforce can only happen through real engagement with their unions. There were significant strides in agency effectiveness and performance through the labor-management partnerships that were created under President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Some managers saw it as an opportunity to increase employee engagement. Some managers, who preferred an antiquated top-down approach of management, resisted as they saw it as a loss of their personal power. Where there was a real engagement with the union representatives, outcomes were achieved that were not otherwise possible.

While President Obama crafted a similar approach called “labor-management forums,” the effort was not a top priority and agency attempts to collaborate with unions lagged. Biden’s management agenda is insightful in its call that agency leaders and managers must be respectful of their employees by working with their union. 

Delivering Excellent, Equitable and Secure Federal Services

The Biden-Harris management agenda recognizes the successful focus on customer service during the Clinton-Gore administration was valuable and is important in today’s approach. While there were lots of critics inside and outside government to the Clinton-Gore strategy, improved customer service was successfully validated in several key agencies by annual customer service surveys done by an independent survey organization used by the private sector. Key agencies saw their customer service grades increase significantly, putting them at or near the top in comparison to the best private companies. The Biden-Harris plan commits to delivering excellent services to the American people and the focus on customer service is to be commended.

Everyone is cognizant of the economic and national security threats to the digital world. Ensuring sufficient resources for data and information security is no longer an option. The management agenda rightly identifies the need to allocate increased resources to make this happen.

Managing the Business of Government

As the president’s management agenda recognizes, massive amounts of data are collected, but not used fully to ease citizen interaction and improve the delivery of products and services. The emphasis on figuring out how to use big data is key to business technological innovation in the private sector today. This technological leap forward is transferrable to government agencies with the proper guidelines to protect privacy, security, personal freedoms and democracy. It too will require additional budget investments, but it will garner a return of more effective and efficient government in the long run.

The Biden-Harris agenda is the best management plan to come along during my 44 years of observation and interaction with the federal government. These three top priorities can produce significant improvement and set the stage for continuous improvement for decades to come. After laying out a terrific blueprint, the harder part comes next in executing the agenda.  But having a great game plan is a great start.

Brian DeWyngaert is retired after having served as assistant to the president and chief of staff for the American Federation of Government Employees. DeWyngaert has a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in public administration.