Deputy secretaries: ‘Integrators-in-chief’ or sacrificial goats?

Ever feel like you were the dinosaur’s dinner?

That’s how one anonymous deputy secretary put it in a new report about the problems facing agency chief operating officers: “When I ask former deputy secretaries, ‘What’s the job description?’ they say, ‘See the tethered goat in Jurassic Park.'”

They might feel like sacrificial goats, but chief operating officers are the “integrators-in-chief,” according to the reports’ authors at the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton. They argue that chief operating officers, who often are deputy secretaries, must make sure human resources, IT and other support services help agencies achieve their missions, rather than throw them off track. The authors argue that recent agency scandals stem from the lack of integration. The botched roll out of HealthCare.gov in 2013 arose from technology and management problems. Poor talent management and a lack of accountability underscored the patient care scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department.

“COOs are charged with the thankless task of tackling everything from complex, long-standing and deeply ingrained management problems, to the successful execution of new program and policy goals,” the report said.

And they’ve got little time to do it. Deputy secretaries stay an average of three years.

But the report said the White House, Congress and agencies can turn those goats into master chefs capable of skillfully blending different ingredients together.

The authors interviewed 23 chief operating officers, Office of Management and Budget officials and former chief operating officers to identify common problems.

Standardizing the role of chief operating officer across agencies

Chief operating officers’ roles vary widely from agency to agency, with some executives focused on mission-support services and others delegating those responsibilities to lower-level executives. Most chief operating officers are political appointees. A few are not. While political appointees have clout, they are short-timers. With little governmentwide guidance about their responsibilities, chief operating officers cobble together their to-do lists based on personal interests, background and their bosses’ wishes.

When one of the chief operating officers started the job, “It was a title with no actual duties,” they said. “If I were to leave today and a new person came in, there would be a free-for-all. There would be a lot of folks who would forget quickly what we are trying to do.”

The report authors argue for more uniformity and coordination between agencies. It recommends that the President nominate chief operating officers with management experience. During the confirmation process, the Senate should focus on that expertise above other qualifications.

“Several chief operating officers had not previously held positions focused on the management and mission-support functions of a large enterprise,” the report said. “These individuals have had careers mostly focused on politics, policy or law.”

The report also appealed to OMB to issue guidance that would standardize chief operating officers’ roles. The guidance would make clear that chief operating officers should integrate governmentwide management reforms, such as better customer service and smarter IT delivery, with policy goals. Then, through individual performance contracts, OMB could evaluate the executives on the progress they make.

The chief operating officers surveyed said they worried about their workforces. They wanted to recruit millennials, plan for pending retirements, engage employees and address poor performance. But they complained that the law held them back.

“Many COOs noted that they can do only so much to fix their agencies’ human capital problems; they are hamstrung by outdated and ineffective civil service laws,” the report said.

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen have called repeatedly for wholesale changes to the General Schedule system, which dictates pay for most white-collar federal jobs. The authors repeated that call in this report.

Yet there are things that chief operating officers themselves could do to improve their chances of success, they said. Many chief operating officers said improving their human-capital systems was their top priority. They can’t overhaul their human-capital systems themselves, but they could do things to improve employee engagement, such as invest in training supervisors.

This is the first in a series that will look at federal management from the perspective of those in charge of it, the report said.

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