Leadership and Stewardship

Leadership and Stewardship

Roadmap for Renewing Our Federal Government

Leadership and Stewardship


The federal government is facing a leadership crisis. Political appointees serve for a short period of time with little incentive to invest in the long-term health of the institutions they lead. There are too many political appointees and many positions undergo frequent turnover or have lengthy periods of vacancy. Political appointees are often unprepared for the unique responsibilities of public sector leadership and how to work with stakeholders across government, including Congress. Leadership development opportunities for career executives are scattered, if they exist at all, and seldom imbued with the values of stewardship and public trust. Succession planning is given short shrift, and career executives and political leaders do not reflect the diversity of the workforce.

The president can make 4,000 political appointments, more than in any other democracy, and that includes 1,200 requiring Senate confirmation.

Today it takes twice as long for the Senate to confirm a nominee (11days) as it did during the Reagan administration (56 days), often resulting in lengthy vacancies in key leadership positions. 

According to the Survey on the Future of Government Service36% of respondents believe leadership is held accountable for recruiting top talent. 

As of March 2021, people of color represent 46.7% of all full-time, entry-level (GS 1-9) employees but only 33.1% of senior-level positions (GS 13-15) and just 22.7% of all career Senior Executive Service members.  

The 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® government-wide score for effective leadership stands at just 64.2 out of 100. Supervisors drew a rating of 78.0 out of 100, but senior leaders came in considerably lower at 57.8 out of 100. 


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Establish a standard for leadership development and performance across government. 

Good leaders get the best out of employees and make organizations more effective. Legislating leadership development and performance objectives for career and political leaders based on four key competencies from the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model—becoming self-aware, engaging others, leading change and achieving results—will result in a more effective government and better outcomes.  

Reduce the number of political appointees and those subject to Senate confirmation, and find ways to make the confirmation process faster and more transparent.

The sheer number of political appointees and the complexity of the appointment process make it difficult for a new president to get a full team in place quickly. A smaller corps of politically appointed officials, supported by career professionals, will promote professional expertise, stability and accountability.

Encourage, enable and highlight innovation, experimentation and learning across government.

Many agencies changed how they operated in response to the pandemic, revealing new and more efficient ways to work and to serve the public. Congress can play a critical role in encouraging this forward-thinking culture shift by asking inspectors general or the Government Accountability Office to highlight areas of success and innovation, giving agency leaders room to pilot new ideas, holding hearings on what works and providing resources so new ideas can take root.

Require political appointees to have specific and measurable performance goals aligned with agency missions. These should include elements dedicated to the health of the workforce, a focus on recruiting and developing highly qualified talent, an understanding of the role that technology plays in mission accomplishment and a commitment to the stewardship of the public trust. 

Performance plans will hold political appointees accountable for their role in executing policy and shaping an agency’s organizational culture, increasing the likelihood of better outcomes for the public and improved employee engagement.

Promote diversity in executive-level hiring by making the Senior Executive Service recruitment and selection process more transparent. 

The recruitment and hiring of senior executives is not as transparent as it could be, making it difficult to identify process reforms to promote diversity. From demographic information on SES applicants to the selection, composition and processes of the Qualifications Review Boards that approve most senior executive hiring decisions, greater transparency and an adherence to hiring and QRB best practices are needed to build a more diverse and highly qualified leadership corps.

Promote an enterprise experience for aspiring senior executives by encouraging rotation programs, joint duty assignments and cross-sector collaborations.  

Strategic use of rotational assignments, both within and outside of the executive branch, will help federal leaders develop a broad perspective and an enterprise-wide view of government that can result in better run programs and improved service to the public.

Provide opportunities for senior executives to work across silos in support of government-wide initiatives. 

Bringing together government’s career senior executives in support of cross-agency initiatives—like the President’s Management Agenda or cross-agency priority goals—will advance critical administration priorities and develop enterprise thinking, collaboration and relationships among senior executives,  which proved essential during pandemic response.

Create an organizational culture that incentivizes and prioritizes learning.

Promoting a culture of learning and development will help agency leaders actively support new ideas, navigate challenges and bring greater risk tolerance and learning from both successful and unsuccessful efforts. Some agencies—notably NASA and the intelligence community—are known to celebrate creativity and innovation, and view failure as a learning opportunity. Other agencies, like the Department of Defense, mandate after-action reports that outline what worked well, what did not, lessons learned and best practices to be applied going forward.

Recognize and publicize excellence in public service, including promoting a culture of recognition by nominating employees for awards, amplifying stories of government’s unsung heroes and using other means to honor and publicize excellent service. 

The public is often unaware of how the government services they value most depend on the work of public servants. Award and recognition programs such as the Presidential Rank Awards and the Partnership’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals highlight the critical work of federal employees, serving as examples of success and   increasing trust in our government.

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Thumbnail for A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service: Measures, aspirational practices and stories of success

Inspired by President Obama’s December 2015 Executive Order – Strengthening the Senior Executive Service, the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company set out to identify practices to bolster the SES and provide baseline metrics on these practices. 

Thumbnail for Building the Leadership Bench: Developing a Talent Pipeline for the SES

In the next five years, nearly two-thirds of the Senior Executive Service (SES)—the elite cadre of civil servants who hold the top managerial and policy positions in government—will be retirement eligible. Given the complex challenges confronting our government, the need for strong leaders to fill these executive positions is critical. Are federal agencies prepared for the potential turnover? Are agency leaders identifying and developing aspiring executives?

Thumbnail for Mission-Driven Mobility: Strengthening Our Government Through a Mobile Leadership Corps

The Partnership for Public Service, in collaboration with McKinsey & Company examined all forms of mobility—intraagency to multisector—and identified the extent to which they are currently used and the barriers to their use. This report also sets forth a series of solutions for increasing SES mobility and building a leadership corps better equipped to drive results in government.

Thumbnail for SES Joint Policy Proposal

The Partnership for Public Service, the Volcker Alliance and Senior Executives Association have worked to identify solutions to strengthen the federal civil service, including at the leadership levels. By joining together, our organizations hope to build momentum to improve the government’s senior level talent management system and propel the civil service modernization conversation forward. We will pursue this agenda in Congress and with the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget and federal agencies.

Thumbnail for A Nonpartisan Model for Developing Public-Service Leaders

As Covid-19 spreads around the globe and throughout the United States, effective government leadership matters more than ever. Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci. Having led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through six presidential administrations, Fauci embodies what it means to serve the American public. Whether at a congressional hearing, at a White House press conference, or on TV shows like Face the Nation, both the people and the president look to the 79-year-old public servant for direction in this uncertain time, on everything from why social distancing matters to what actions we can take to lessen the burden on hospitals and the healthcare system.

Thumbnail for Tracking how many key positions Biden has filled so far

The Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, are tracking roughly 700 key executive branch nominations through the confirmation process. These positions include Cabinet secretaries, deputy and assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsel, heads of agencies, ambassadors and other critical leadership positions. These are a portion of the roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation.

Thumbnail for Ready to Serve

Serving America through a presidential appointment is a great honor and responsibility.

Thumbnail for Center for Presidential Transition

The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition® serves as the premier nonpartisan source of information and resources to help presidential candidates and their teams lay the groundwork for a new administration or for a president’s second term.

Thumbnail for Public Service Leadership Model

To help government leaders take advantage of the opportunity they have been given to improve our country, we developed the Public Service Leadership Model. This model is the new standard for effective federal leadership. It identifies the core values leaders must prioritize, and the critical competencies they must master to achieve their agencies’ missions and desired impact. By using the model, leaders can evaluate their performance, assess their leadership progress and chart a course for self-improvement.