President’s Management Agenda Addresses Key Civil Service Issues

The President’s Management Agenda (PMA) was released last week and got the usual pro and con coverage. When I read it one thought went through my mind – it was written or at least heavily influenced by a person or people who actually understand government and the civil service. Overall, I think it is a great start. Here are my thoughts on what I believe are some essential takeaways from the document:

It is not a quick shake-and-bake approach to reform. Too often we see proposals for simple fixes to complex problems. Folks on the political side are often looking for the quick illusion of a solution to help in the next election. The PMA addresses the complex and long-term nature of government reform head on. It says “The President’s Management Agenda lays out a long-term vision for modernizing the Federal Government in key areas that will improve the ability of agencies to deliver mission outcomes, provide excellent service, and effectively steward taxpayer dollars on behalf of the American people.” Later it says “Deep-seated transformation takes time and will not happen in one or two years.” Amen. The recognition that reform takes time to do correctly is important, because it tells me we may see some real and lasting reforms rather than quick fixes that fix nothing.

The PMA envisions reforms that are adaptable to changing conditions. It says “The vision for reform must be multi-generational, enabling the Federal Government to adapt to changing needs over time. We cannot pursue short-term fixes only to see Government quickly become outdated once again.” This is critical and I agree wholeheartedly. Whatever management reforms are enacted, it is essential that the regulations, processes and tools be designed to evolve as the environment in which they operate evolves. Programs can be designed to change over time as needs change, or they can be carved in bureaucratic stone. The civil service rules are a great example. Many of them were carved in stone in 1949 and have changed little in the past 69 years. Look at what has happened in the world in since then.  The government competes for talent in a world that few would have imagined in 1949, and it does it using a completely outdated civil service system.

Management reform in government should be a bipartisan effort. The PMA says “The Administration believes that modernizing Federal Government represents a profound bipartisan opportunity to work across branches of Government and political differences to align the mechanics of government to better meet America’s needs.” This is something we often hear people say, but do not always see the follow-through. Our political system has become so toxic that bipartisanship is treated like a 4-letter word. It is not. Our government does not serve only Democrats, only Republicans, or only any other party or nonaligned group. It serves everyone and the way it is managed is something that should include everyone on the political spectrum.

Government reform should be driven by mission requirements. The PMA mentions mission over and over. The devil is, of course, in the details. The real question is “what is the mission?” Real management reform is going to take a shared understanding of the many missions of government.

The federal workforce is a critical part of reform. The PMA says “The workforce for the 21st Century must enable senior leaders and front-line managers to align staff skills with evolving mission needs. This will require more nimble and agile management of the workforce, including reskilling and redeploying existing workers to keep pace with the current pace of change.” Any successful organization needs to have the right talent in place to perform effectively. Government HR rules tend to work against flexibility and get in the way of having an effective workforce. On the other hand, some of those rules keep the civil service from becoming politicized or subject to reprisal for blowing the whistle on improper behavior.

Technology is absolutely critical. The PMA says “Modern information technology must function as the backbone of how Government serves the public in the digital age. Meeting customer expectations, keeping sensitive data and systems secure, and ensuring responsive, multi-channel access to services are all critical parts of the vision for modern Government.” This is another area where government has not been able to evolve with our society. As information technology moved from the mainframe era to personal computers and then to mobile devices, we still have agencies that are dependent on antique systems that should have been given a graceful goodbye years ago. Government technology suffers from procurement rules that are too inflexible, contracting officers who do not or are not allowed to take advantage of the flexibilities that exist, and program management processes that make the entire process of deploying new systems an ordeal. On top of that, surveys such as the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF’s Federal Leaders Digital Insights study show that government does not adequately train its employees to use the systems it does successfully deploy.

Citizens are also customers, and the government needs to provide a 21st century customer experience. The PMA says “Federal agencies will provide a modern, streamlined, and responsive customer experience across Government, comparable to leading private-sector organizations.” We have become so accustomed to being able to get information we need when we need it, that the bar has been raised for government. As my colleague Andrew LaVanway put it, ” … there’s this tremendous opportunity we can seize, because as soon as you provide something better to the customer, the customer will be willing and, in fact, excited to come back to you. I believe it’s these small moments that will renew our faith in government”

There is much more in the PMA that I will be covering in coming weeks. At this point, I believe it is an excellent start that, with some refinement and added planning, could be a roadmap for more effective management in government.

Good Government Organizations Can Be the Honest Brokers We Need for Real Reform

When we look at calls for government reform, the voices that get the most attention are often those who have the most controversial ideas. Partisan and ideological “think tanks” offer suggestions for reform that are sometimes out of the mainstream and are often rehashes of the ideas they have trotted out time after time for many years. Those voices, while they may be sharing views that they truly believe are in the best interests of the American people, tend to not represent the collective views of the people.

For views that are focused more on how government can do its work more effectively, I tend to go to the “good government” organizations. In fact, I have spent many years engaged with two such organizations primarily because I am convinced they look at government reform from a completely nonpartisan perspective. Both of these organizations have a long history of paying attention to the details of governing that can be overlooked when the partisan voices offer the kind of conflict that seems to substitute for public discourse these days. Because I identify that I am affiliated with NAPA and the Partnership, from time to time I get questions from folks who ask exactly who these organizations are and why they exist. With that in mind, here is a bit of background on each, and why I believe they play an important role in improving the quality of government in the U.S.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) is a congressionally chartered, independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan Academy founded in 1967. NAPA’s work covers a broad range of public administration activities at the federal, state and local levels. The charter identifies five key objectives of the Academy:

  1. Evaluating the structure, administration, operation, and program performance of Federal and other governments and government agencies, anticipating, identifying, and analyzing significant problems and suggesting timely corrective action;
  2. Foreseeing and examining critical emerging issues in governance, formulating practical approaches to their resolution.
  3. Assessing the effectiveness, structure, administration, and implications for governance of present or proposed public programs, policies, and processes, recommending specific changes;
  4. Advising on the relationship of Federal, State, regional, and local governments; increasing public officials’, citizens’ and scholars’ understanding of requirements and opportunities for sound governance and how these can be effectively met; and
  5. Demonstrating by the conduct of its affairs a commitment to the highest professional standards of ethics and scholarship.

The Academy conducts studies and does its work using panels of expert Fellows. Fellows come from government, academia, nonprofits and industry. Fellows are elected after a rigorous nomination and vetting process. The current Fellows have served both administrations from both parties, taught in some of the most prestigous schools in the country, and demonstrated a lifelong commitment to good government.

Recent NAPA programs include No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, and Governing Across the Divide. NAPA is working on Phase II of No Time to Wait. Governing Across the Divide was a unique series of topical, thought-leadership convenings. NAPA describes them as “solution-focused and aimed at identifying the best practices to bridge the gaps and obstacles that prevent the scaling of services across all levels of government.”  Work continues on the four topics – the changing role of states, innovation in local government service delivery, the future of public service and citizenship, and resilient critical infrastructure.

The Partnership for Public Service was founded in 2001 by Samuel J. Heyman, who said “The future of our nation quite simply depends on the quality of our government.” As the Partnership says, “We all deserve a government that is responsive to the needs of our fellow citizens. While others may debate whether government should be bigger or smaller, we focus on making it better. Our nonpartisan stance allows us to collaborate with many different stakeholders who share our vision of a better government. We serve as a bridge between administrations, across the political aisle and from government to the private sector, bringing together different perspectives needed to develop forward-thinking solutions.”

In addition to working with current and former government officials, the Partnership has assembled a group of “Strategic Advisors to Government Executives” or SAGEs, to help government executives benefit from the experience of their predecessors and people in industry. I have been participating as a SAGE for several years. In addition to the SAGE program, the Partnership runs “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” and the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (SAMMIES) awards program to recognize the truly exceptional work done by government employees. Other programs include the Ready to Govern program for presidential transition, an Emerging HR Leaders program, and more.

Both NAPA and the Partnership have and can continue to play a critical role in government reform. They approach government without partisanship and with a focus on how government can better serve the American people. In my own work with both, I have worked with Democrats, Republicans and Independents, with conservatives, moderates and progressives – all focused on how our government can be more effective. Both organizations have offered concrete ideas to reform federal programs, and both work with members and staff on the Hill to identify laws that can be amended, abolished or passed to facilitate better government.

Whatever direction government reform takes, NAPA and the Partnership can continue to play the role of honest broker for a great many subjects, offering solutions that are not dependent on special interests or partisanship.