How to improve your agency in 2020

Credibility — keeping, enhancing or regaining it might be the most important 2020 goal of large organizations.

Twenty years ago everyone woke up to see if the modern world had somehow reverted back to the pre-computer era. But no, the two-digit date code didn’t cause noticeable computer failures as the calendar clicked from 1999 to 2000. A creditable, governmentwide effort by the Clinton administration not only prepared federal systems to avoid catastrophe, it catalyzed efforts throughout the private sector. To me, one positive effect was the credibility an ordinarily chaotic government gained when it organized around something important.

A few recent failures drive home the importance of credibility.

In the financial-investment-sucker realm, I’m thinking of an outfit called WeWork. Its charismatic, but truth-stretching, creator convinced some otherwise savvy investors that the simple business of buying or leasing office space in bulk then sub-renting it out in small increments was not real estate but rather some sort of world-changing technology. The company’s initial public offering collapsed, luckily for would-be late investors but not before people like JPMorgan Chase, T. Rowe Price, Goldman Sachs and the Harvard Corporation bought in. You’d think they’d have known better.

A lot of peoples’ credibility took a hit.

But what about the FBI, which came off unflatteringly in the tangle of events that led to the Mueller investigation and the impeachment proceedings? This episode may have involved only a few people in the FBI, but now the agency must overcome perceptions that investigations can potentially become tainted with politics.

Or take the Federal Aviation Administration, which is dealing with the Office of Special Counsel. An FAA regional center, according to a whistleblower, adopted dangerous air traffic control practices that differed from FAA policy. Instead of revising the practices, the local FAA management changed the policy. The FAA directs thousands of planes daily to safe landings, but now it’s got to deal with a nagging tear in its safety fabric. Plus it’s dealing with its certification of a certain, now-grounded airplane model. Published reports state FAA staff analysis showed the 737 MAX would crash a lot, but decision-makers certified it anyway. A credibility hit. Nations with lesser technological infrastructures have always considered the FAA the gold standard. What now?

Companies too must guard their credibility. Boeing is caught in a seemingly endless race to get that best-selling plane back into service, while hundreds of both delivered and undelivered ones sit there doing nothing but costing money — tens of billions of dollars. Thousands of other Boeing planes fly millions of people millions of miles every day uneventfully. But now a large employer and the country’s biggest exporter has to restore not only its plane but its credibility with customers and passengers.

These organizations are not Mafia families, inherently corrupt. They’re basically sound outfits with good reputations. Their failures started out with individuals who probably thought they were doing the right thing.

That’s the challenge for large organizations: How to balance the discretion they need their individuals to exercise without having them drag the organization itself into trouble. Sometimes certain people deliberately do wrong. The Navy’s 7th Fleet “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal, still rolling along after more than a decade, snared dozens of officers who knew darn well what they were doing. Luckily that’s the exception.

Challenges to credibility will arrive for many agencies this year. The Census Bureau has the Big Count. The IRS will embark on its umpteenth IT modernization drive (more on that in an upcoming column). The Food and Drug Administration will take on the fraught vaping phenomenon. The General Services Administration is going to have to get its electronic marketplace done one way or another.

I want to bring this around to something that may seem unrelated, but is germane. Year after year the government struggles with its employee engagement scores. Last year relations worsened between federal employee unions and the management of several large agencies. These problems originated in the administration’s desire to change traditional arrangements for probation, telework, work locations and other matters.

High performing organizations start with line people and managers trusting one another. That’s not the same as always agreeing. It’s rather the result of caring about the mission, listening to one another, and having everyone know that decisions in the best interest of the mission will be rewarded. So maybe 2020 should be your agency’s year of resetting the credibility people have among one another. It’s not the only condition for high quality output, but it’s a required one.