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Beyond Czars: Meeting Bureaucracy-Spanning Challenges

We need a cadre of career professionals to take a whole-of-government approach to addressing key priorities.

Recently, Government Executive editor at large Tom Shoop wrote a retrospective on the proliferation of “czars” in the executive branch, and it’s clear to me they’re not going away. 

But while czars may have become part of our bureaucratic landscape, having a few of them at the epicenter of the federal government is not sufficient. We need an army (or at least a battalion) of sharply focused career executives who can take a “whole of government” approach to the myriad challenges our nation faces. The good news is that there are ways to develop and deploy such a cadre, if we can just find the wherewithal to do so.

Czars Are Not Enough

Are White House czars even necessary? Is it because many of them can be appointed without Senate confirmation and, in so doing, avoid constant, diverting and increasingly partisan congressional oversight? Both are good, tactical reasons for their emergence. But I think there’s an overarching strategic explanation for their proliferation, having to do with the way the federal bureaucracy is organized (or not) to deal with the whole-of-government and even whole-of-nation challenges that have become our new normal.

Here’s the problem: in its purest form, the federal bureaucracy works best when tackling well-defined, compartmented tasks that can fit into nice, neat organizational boxes. In contrast, dealing with today’s bureaucracy-spanning, interagency, intergovernmental, and even international challenges is something it is not well-organized to do. That’s why presidents have found it necessary to appoint czars. They fill a gap that the federal bureaucracy (and its mirror image on Capitol Hill) cannot, at least as currently configured. Those twin bureaucracies just don’t deal very well with cross-cutting crises. 

Such crises—and there are plenty of them—range from exigent emergencies like Covid-19 to longer term endemic problems such as climate change and relations with China. By definition, no one agency, no one level of government, no single sector of our economy—nor, in many cases, even one nation-state—can address these challenges alone. At the very least, they involve multiple agencies and levels of government, non-profits, and the private sector. These institutions must all work together in coordinated, collaborative fashion to successfully meet a particular challenge. But they don’t, at least not naturally. So, presidents have had to create czars.

But czars alone are not enough. These challenges also require career leaders—samurai bureaucrats who have been developed to deal with whole-of-government and whole-of-nation challenges. Yet, for the most part, we still promote, train, and deploy members of the Senior Executive Service the old-fashioned way, to be technocrats at the apex of an agency-centric hierarchy who will preside over programmatically or functionally specialized bureaucratic compartments.

Enterprise Leadership

It has become abundantly clear that today’s challenges can no longer be tackled in isolation by the structures that have so long characterized our vast bureaucracy. The good news is that we have the potential to create an SES that has the potential to deal far more effectively with the issues and emergencies that Americans expect the federal government to handle.

The Federal Executive Institute has a program called Leading Edge that can help. It was designed around the concept of enterprise leadership, a principle that focuses on mobilizing and coordinating the entire interconnected network of government (and non-government) institutions to deal with a particular challenge.

Leading Edge was conceived during the Obama administration by Scott Gould when he was deputy secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department. He worked in partnership with current White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, who was then deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. Leading Edge was intended to develop the kind of enterprise leadership competencies that tend to be found in czars, such as those demonstrated by Ron Klain, the departing White House chief of staff. As the Obama administration’s designated Ebola czar, Klain integrated disparate and uncoordinated federal, state, local and non-profit efforts to ameliorate that plague, and those competencies can serve as a model for us.

An Unrealized Vision

One might argue that this is implicit in the SES’s original premise. It was envisioned as a corps of career executives who would apply their leadership skills across government and bring, along with their tradecraft, an enterprise mindset. But that perspective remains the most elusive among the various dimensions of the career executive’s roles. And to compound the problem, Leading Edge—specifically designed to cure this defect—has fallen into funding limbo. It is now a minor, under-resourced, fringe program instead of what it could be.

Fully funding—indeed, expanding—Leading Edge and making it a part of the Federal Executive Institute’s core curriculum would help develop an enterprise leadership perspective. But as long as career executives are considered agency assets, rather than governmentwide or even national ones, that won’t happen.

However, there are ways to change that. For example, the intelligence community’s pioneering civilian joint duty program, (patterned after the military’s general officer development system) requires enterprise leadership as a sixth executive core qualification. It can only be met with an interagency (or equivalent) assignment. So, it’s a precondition to senior executive promotion.

Such initiatives have the potential to help develop executives who can successfully connect the governmentwide dots without sacrificing the technical, programmatic and organizational competencies that today’s executive core qualifications are designed to ensure. But until we acknowledge the need for new cross-cutting leadership competencies, we’ll continue to need the czars.

Ron Sanders, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, is a retired career member of the Senior Executive Service. He served as director of civilian personnel at the Defense Department, the IRS’s chief human resources officer, associate director of the Office of Personnel Management, chief human capital officer for the intelligence community, and chairman of the Federal Salary Council. He has supported the Leading Edge program and is a frequent lecturer at the Federal Executive Institute.