Finally, a New Emphasis on Training

Both the Washington Post’s Joe Davidson and Federal News Radio‘s Jason Miller reported on March 3 that the Obama Administration will include increased attention to employee training needs in the President’s proposed 2015 budget. The reports are based upon comments made by OPM Director Katherine Archuleta at the National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference last week. Federal News Radio reports Director Archuleta said “The President’s budget proposal will include measures to improve federal employee training and support an exchange of training ideas across government, part of the conversation that [NTEU President] Colleen [Kelley] and other labor representatives are going to be having in the Labor Management Council. We need to learn from one another about what works. We need to be able to talk about our successes.”

It’s about time. For far too long Federal agencies have looked to the training budget as one of the first places to cut (after travel) when budgets are tight.  Training cuts are among the most shortsighted of the budget cutting options. They trade small savings today for a lack of capability tomorrow. Although such cuts are typically justified by claims that they are to protect dollars devoted to the mission, the result is that employees do not have current training on crucial mission skills. The renewed emphasis on training in the 2015 budget is a good sign that the dark times for employee training may be coming to an end. I was also pleased to see Director Archuleta’s focus on sharing information regarding learning about what works.

“What works” is sometimes difficult to define other than through anecdotal evidence. One key shortcoming in many training programs is evaluation of their effectiveness. Real training evaluation goes far beyond simply asking class attendees if they liked the training or asking managers if they think their employees did better after training. Done properly, training evaluation can help agencies determine whether employee skills, customer experiences and mission outcomes are improved by specific training. If more training programs were accompanied by proper evaluations, we would learn far more about “what works” and what does not. That would lead to far better use of training dollars and better outcomes.

One area where we have a good idea of “what works” is leader development. Other than core mission skills, leader development is one of the best investments in training dollars. Money spent on leader development is leveraged by the effects leaders have on the people they lead. With many of the bad results evidenced by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey being directly or indirectly caused by the quality of supervision, the amount of goodness that can result from effective leader development programs is tremendous. Given that, and the fact that even with more dollars training budgets will be tight, how can agencies make certain they spend their dollars wisely?

Recently my ICF International colleague Ethan Sanders and I discussed the issue and the results of a study Ethan, our colleagues Lisa Gabel, Kate Harker and students from Penn State conducted for ICF and the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) on the subject. The report of that research, “The Impact of Leader Development Programs,” looks at the most effective methods of linking leader development programs to organizational impact measures. The study focused on three specific research questions:

  1. What are the best examples of organizations that are able to measure the impact of leadership development programs?
  2. What are the specific techniques and the required context that these organizations need to link leadership development content to organizational metrics?
  3. Can these best practices be transplanted into other organizations, thereby allowing them to assess and improve the outcomes of their leadership development programs?

Following interviews with an expert panel (including Chief Learning Officers), conducting a literature review, doing “best case” interviews and administering two surveys, the research resulted in several key findings.

  • It is possible to effectively (and efficiently) link the outcomes of leadership development to organizational success measures. It is exceedingly rare to find organizations that do it well and it definitely takes some practice to do it well.
  • Best Case organizations who do evaluation well, report it taking far fewer resources (time, people, money) than those who speculate about the difficulty of implementing a robust evaluation systems.
  • Organizations that already have a culture around measurement (i.e., measuring the effectiveness of programs, service, success, etc..) have a much easier time standing-up a training evaluation system for leadership development.
  • There are a lot of techniques out there (some more qualitative in nature, some more quantitative) that can work for different organizations, but you have to select ones that fit your organization. The study identified 29 techniques.
  • Best Case organizations have baseline data, a formal evaluation plan in place, and use more advanced types of measurement approaches such as control groups and time-series approaches.
  • ROI measurement is still very low in the profession.
The good news from the report and literature review is that it is clear that training programs in general can benefit from evaluations of their effectiveness. Training evaluation is not only less resource intensive than many people believe, but there are also many effective techniques that can be used and tailored to fit the culture, mission and requirements of the organization. If agencies become more committed to training evaluation, the Federal government will gain far more knowledge about effectiveness of programs, ways to get better results with fewer dollars, and the real mission benefits of training. That knowledge can serve as the basis for the business case for increased investment in training and the improved results it can produce.

Are New Political Appointees Ready to Govern?

Political appointees come from all walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds. Some understand and have worked in government, while others know little or nothing about how Washington works (when it does). A new appointee has to learn how to work within his/her agency, how to work with the White House (the Office of Management and Budget in particular), other agencies, the Congress, and the public. Many come with the idea that they are there to change the world. The fact that they are appointed by the President leads many to conclude they have tremendous power to enact the President’s policies and priorities. Their sense of urgency is high, their goals are far-reaching, and their desire to do good is often off the scale.

Appointee, meet Reality – Reality, meet Appointee.
It doesn’t take long for reality to rudely intrude and bring even the most dedicated professionals down to earth. Simply being appointed by the President or a member of his Cabinet does not bring with it the power to successfully execute significant changes in government. The ability of other agencies, the Congress and coutless other stakeholders to put up roadblocks is maddening. And as if that isn’t enough, they run headlong into the federal budget, procurement and HR processes. Faced with those realities, is it any wonder the average tenure of a political appointee is 18-24 months? Every appointee knows that statistic and understands (1) they serve at the pleasure and (2) Presidents are elected for 4 years at a time. Appointees see the ticking clock and act as if they are running a sprint to the finish line. They will work obscene numbers of hours for the few years they are in government to make certain they can accomplish some good. That collides with a career workforce that cannot possibly work at that pace and work those hours for 20 to 30 years. Even with 31 years as a career employee, I found myself pushing my staff so hard that one seasoned and highly respected career SES told me I had successfully made the transition to being an appointee because I expected everything immediately. I had to admit he was right. My view of what was doable was influenced by the knowledge that my time was limited.

During 31 years as a career federal employee and 2 years as a political appointee, I found the process for onboarding appointees was generally inadequate to prepare them for the enormous responsibilities they are taking on. As an appointee, many of my colleagues were so frustrated with government and so disappointed by the difficulty in effecting real change that they were ready to leave government. They had the passion, drive and real-world skills, but were struggling to effect real change.

What can be done to make it more likely these motivated individuals will be successful? A number of studies in recent years have identified the problem and dozens of recommendations for fixes. One of the best studies was published by the Partnership for Public Service. Ready to Govern, published in January 2010, identified a number of actionable steps that can be taken to improve the quality of Presidential transitions. Many of the Ready to Govern recommendations can also be applied throughout the term of an Administration to ensure its appointees are effective. Ready to Govern and other studies consistently recommend training for all new appointees. To be most effective, the training must occur early in their appointment (or even before) and should address the budget, procurement, and HR processes, and the ethics restrictions covering appointees. The Obama Administration implemented a successful Presidential Appointee Leadership Program to provide training for new appointees. When I was in the Administration, I participated in the program and helped train over 1,000 appointees. The interest in government, enthusiasm for the public good, and superb quality of the appointees was tremendously inspiring. In addition to the White House program, in the past year the Partnership for Public Service has worked with a group of experienced former career SES and political appointees to develop a series of Ready to Govern courses for new appointees. I have been privileged to work with them and serve as faculty for several of the sessions. We have piloted the program and gotten tremendous feedback on its effectiveness and real world applicability. 

Programs such as these can equip appointees with the information they need to be successful in government. In addition, they need agency-specific training regarding mission, structure, budget and employee data (demographics, Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and Best Places to Work results). It is critical to understand what is happening internally – why the agency exists and how it gets its funding. Appointees also need to understand how the agency workforce views the place if they hope to work closely with the career workforce to get their priorities accomplished.

An effective government-wide training program that provides the broad government view, combined with agency-specific onboarding programs that provde a deeper understanding of their own agencies, can help ensure that political appointees are truly Ready to Govern.