Risk, a condition of life and work

Waiting to cross the intersection of Constitution and Louisiana Avenues at rush hour, I watched a young woman, still in her Express dress from work, navigate her bicycle around and between inching and impatient cars. That’s risk management, I thought, as she made a series of small but important choices in a fluid situation.

A regular road bike rider myself, I’m familiar with that risk. But you take steps to manage it — lights, helmet, constant scanning, sometimes plain old patience.

Census Bureau chief John Thompson seems to know and practice risk management — that balancing of pluses and minuses, and making decisions aimed at preserving the ultimate goal. In his case, that goal is a successful 2020 decennial count at the cost level he promised Congress. For Thompson, budget uncertainty threatens that goal, like the texting lawyer in his Lexus zooming into the intersection.

So for 2017, Census has tossed overboard Spanish language test operations in Puerto Rico and non-traditional address count tests on two tribal reservations. Instead, Census will use its 2017 dollars, whatever they may end up being after the continuing resolution, on other priorities. If you launch $2 worth of activity in a fiscal year, and halfway through Congress ends up appropriating $1.79, you’re in trouble. As stated by associate Census director Lisa Blumerman in this Tuesday memo, “That’s a risk we are unwilling to take.”

You can find a whole chapter on risk management in a genuinely readable new book , “The Federal Management Playbook: Leading and Succeeding in the Public Sector.” It sounds dry, but author Ira Goldstein, a long-time federal executive lately of Deloitte, has filled the book with colorful examples from the many times public management has produced headlines.

Deloitte and the National Academy of Public Administration, where Goldstein is a fellow, rolled out the book last evening before a small D.C. gathering. Goldstein has pithy advice: Stop defending to the new appointees the old administration’s policies, or “you’ll lose the war before you’re even armed.”

Re-label what you know actually is good using the new administration’s terms. And let them take credit for things that work.

The presidential transition coming in January poses a career risk for civil servants, for some an existential risk. But as long-time federal financial operative Ed DeSeve pointed out, a new administration puts itself at risk with poor personnel planning, as the “obsequious and unqualified” gather ’round.

Paul Posner — another NAPA fellow, long-time federal manager, and now at George Mason University — put it, we’re living in “dark times in public management” thanks to the nation’s “poisoned political environment.” He’s got that right. Latest proof? CNN put together the worst moments of the Al Smith dinner that also took place last night.

Posner praised people, like Goldstein, with hefty experience navigating the rapids where politics and public management cross and the ability to articulate what they’ve learned. He called them “pracademics.”

Federal managers are wise to be especially worried about transition this time around and the risk it poses to programs and careers. But as Goldstein writes, “Risk is everywhere — and essential to human progress.” Managing it with good choices and flexible options “can help us serve the taxpayer better.”

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