Leading America’s Workforce: Did President Obama Hit the Mark?

On December 9, President Obama addressed a group of Senior Executive Service members to thank them for their service and outline 3 initiatives to recognize customer service and improve development opportunities for aspiring leaders. The speech got a mixed response, with some people saying it was on target and others, including my friend, Federal News Radio’s Francis Rose, saying the President’s reform plan may make the problems worse.

President Obama offered 3 specific ideas for SES reform:

  • White House Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives. Intended to increase mobility and provide SES members and SES candidates with experience on high impact programs outside their agencies, this program has the potential to make mobility far more real than it has been. The original intent of the SES was to have executives who were mobile and whose skills could be applied across government. That intent has never been realized, even though it has been at the top of most lists of reform ideas for years. Finally having a program that has the backing of the White House is a good thing and this program may be the first to get real results.
  • White House Advisory Group on SES Reform. While we have had more groups looking at SES reform than I care to remember, they have generally consisted almost entirely of academics, business leaders with little government experience, and politicians. The new Advisory Group will include current SES, SL and ST members, as well as aspiring SES candidates. We have known for years that the best people to advise on improving business processes are the people who do the work. Having these folks involved in the Advisory Group gives me hope that it may actually produce results.
  • Customer Service Awards Program. The White House says this program will “focus SES and employees on outcomes and improving the quality, timeliness, and effectiveness of the services they provide to the American people and American businesses….” We have had awards programs in government for many years, including some that focus on customer service. The difference here is that this program will raise the awards to the agency head and Presidential level. That is a big difference from other programs – a difference that should make it more likely to succeed.

I have heard from many people who said the President should have spoken to the SES sooner. I agree. It would have been great to see the President address the senior career leaders in his first year in office. But – the President is still the President and any time we can get this or any President of the United States to pay attention to the needs of our career workforce, I welcome it. Every Administration learns the lesson that nothing they want to accomplish can be done without the good work of the 2 million career Federal employees. President Obama commented on how surprised people who come from industry are when they realize the Federal workforce is filled with talented, hard working and innovative people. Those of us who have been in that workforce know that the talented Feds far, far outnumber the stereotypical bureaucrats.

So – did the President’s speech hit the mark? Yes. He may be a little late to the game, but he came with strong ideas and is willing to put the strength of the White House behind them. I am looking forward to seeing the results.