We the Partnership

Biden administration’s success depends on how they handle the federal government’s leadership crisis

By Christina Schiavone
February 9, 2021

The first 100 days of a new administration set the tone for how presidents govern and prioritize policy. But as we’ve seen in the Biden administration, the first ten days matter too.

President Biden spent his first days in office addressing a range of issues, from climate change to immigration to economic relief for those impacted by the pandemic. In addition to these policy initiatives and executive orders, the new administration has also taken significant steps to demonstrate how it will lead the government’s 2.1 million civil servants.  

Why does this matter? While President Biden faces many difficult challenges early in his first term, his team’s success depends on how it tackles another pressing issue: the federal government’s leadership crisis. 

The politicization of our government and the alarming loss of talent across various agencies over the past few years—including the Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Education, among others—has impacted employee morale. And according to the Pew Research Center, only 20% of people say they trust the federal government compared to 77% in 1964. The federal workforce has suffered from years of neglect and the new administration must commit itself to rebuilding public trust in government over the next four years. 

Our Roadmap for Renewing our Federal Government outlined early actions the administration can take to improve government leadership. We commend the administration for taking early action on these suggestions to improve the quality and performance of our government: 

  • Select and promote capable and credible leaders. We advocated for filling political positions with talented Americans from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and regions who have prior leadership experience and diverse professional credentials. President Biden has pledged that his Cabinet would “look like all of America,” and his appointees (if confirmed) will comprise the most diverse cabinet in history.  
  • Foster a culture of leadership. Setting leadership standards for all federal employees is critical, and the administration must communicate a shared vision, consistent values and consistent ethics expectations. On his first day in office, President Biden swore in a team of new appointees, and highlighted the obligations and privileges of public service. He shared his vision for honesty, decency and treating one another with respect. Secretary of State Tony Blinken recently reinforced these expectations with his employees, stating that serving the American people, respecting those with political differences, and fostering diversity and inclusion “are the basics, and we must get them right.” 
  • Cultivate an effective leadership corps. President Biden will depend on over 7,000 senior career executives and 4,000 political appointees to implement his agenda.  It is critical to set the right tone and vision for these leaders, train them to lead effectively and emphasize the importance of fostering trust and collaboration within their agencies. Recently, President Biden spoke directly to career employees about the core values that will shape the administration’s work over the next four years: humility, trust, collegiality, diversity and competence. 

It’s an encouraging start to rebuilding the federal workforce, and it will require sustained attention over time. What should President Biden and his team focus on next? 

  • Bolster executive accountability. President Biden has been clear that his team is accountable to the public. New appointees should understand what that looks like in practice and set consistent accountability standards for themselves and the executives within their agencies. 
  • Adopt a data-driven management and decision-making approach. Incoming leaders have ample data to inform their agency-specific plans—including the career workforce’s incredible wealth of institutional knowledge. Good starting points for understanding agency culture include the recently released Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, as well as the Partnership’s Oversight Snapshots and annual Best Places to Work rankings, which offer rich perspectives on the employee engagement.  
  • Continue to foster a culture of leadership. President Biden has shared his vision for how his team—both political and career staff—should operate. Ongoing vacancies in key leadership positions have impacted agency operations and employee morale, and it will take time for new leaders to rebuild relationships and trust. New appointees should model the president’s values, treat employees across government with respect and listen to career leaders.  

We need a well-functioning government to address the many challenges we face as a nation. The months ahead present a valuable opportunity for the Biden administration to define how it will lead, create a culture of accountability across government and deliver results to the public. 


Christina Schiavone