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 (117 days) 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 Service, 36% 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.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONGRESS
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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.
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.
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.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
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.
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.
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.
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.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FEDERAL AGENCIES
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.
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.