There’s a secret weapon when it comes to moving forward on management agendas in government: chief operating officers.
These COOs frequently occupy deputy secretary positions that require Senate confirmation, many of which are vacant in the current administration. But it’s the people occupying these offices that are best positioned to make real changes in the way agencies perform their missions.
“[Deputy Secretaries] sit at the interface between the deciding and the doing in any given agency or department,” Ron Sanders, vice president at management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and former chief human resources officer at the Internal Revenue Service, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “They really are the person who can drive a lot of the management reforms that the Trump administration has announced.”
Booz Allen Hamilton worked with the Partnership for Public Service to create a report on the importance of COOs and how they can drive change at agencies. The report, which involved interviews with more than 30 former COOs, produced a number of recommendations on how these officials can effect lasting changes in certain management areas.
“The reason nothing gets done in the federal government is there is no transparency about what the government is trying to do, by when, and how it’s performing relative to that goal,” said Clay Johnson, former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, in the report.
While the past two president’s administrations committed to improving accountability and transparency and made steps forward on those subjects, the Trump administration has not followed suit so far. Agencies are accountable to OMB for creating a reform plan to reduce workforce and improve performance, but political appointees are not accountable for results or the speed of progress.
The report suggests that COOs could fill this opening, taking on accountability for the agency and its performance in making progress on its goals. But making them accountable without empowering them with the necessary authority to make the improvements could result in a no-win situation.
“I’m all down with accountability, it’s our middle name — that’s the joke, of course, with the GAO,” said Chris Mihm, Managing Director for Strategic Issues at the Government Accountability Office during a panel PPS hosted to coincide with the release of the report. “But at the end of the day, we need to make sure managers and leaders have the authority, have the capacity to do be able to do that.”
For example, when GAO releases its high risk list, COOs will need both a clear path forward from senior executives, but also the capacity to move the agency down that path.
“Without accountability, the president’s management agenda is a coffee-table book. It gathers dust,” Sanders said while moderating the panel.
Listen to Ron Sanders and Mallory Barg Bulman on Federal Drive with Tom Temin
“We think that feds want good government as much as any political appointee,” Sanders told the Federal Drive. “You just need to harness that energy, get them in the door, tell them the way it is, be straight with them, be transparent, engage them and get their good ideas. Because … they know where everything is. They know where the fat is, what needs to be cut.”
Another panelist, Dustin Brown, deputy associate director for Performance and Personnel Management at OMB, agreed with Sanders, saying that employee engagement has three layers: buy-in from the leadership, which sets the agency priorities; alignment of what he calls the major influencers in the agency, usually individuals just below leadership levels, that can have a vast impact on morale; and finally, creating energy and engagement with the full workforce.
Brown said the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, especially the results from Senior Executives, are a valuable data point for leadership trying to improve engagement.
“We have seen time after time, agencies who have moved that through active engagement with a deputy secretary or agency head, and two or three years after that number moves, the rest of the workforce starts moving,” Brown said.
The workforce also needs consistency, he said, to remain engaged and keep morale up, and that’s something COOs can provide.
“It’s the job of the COO, when issues blow up, when the GAO high risk list comes out, another IG management challenge comes out or something in the press, it’s very easy for us to be the cat that follows a red light — we’re going to immediately go over here, we’re going to throw those plans away that we’ve had for a while, and I think as leaders, both political and career, you’ve got to keep that consistency,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, the report also discussed the importance of keeping an open pipeline to new talent as another key step to reshaping the workforce. It offered a couple recommendations to accomplish this: experimenting with short-term hiring and appealing directly to millennials.
Short-term hiring is seen as a good tool for providing talent and innovation by appealing to individuals who may not be looking for a career in the public sector, but could benefit from experience with defense, intelligence or energy policy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency uses three-to-five-year appointments to attract cutting edge talent, and the General Services Administration’s 18F similarly used the Presidential Innovation Fellows program to harness digital innovation.
“The report highlights several things, [like] looking at short term hiring. My favorite quote that we’ve heard is people refer to 18F as the ‘Peace Corps for nerds,’” said Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president for Research and Evaluation at PPS, introducing the report before the panel. “There really are innovative models out there for agencies who bring in people for short term tours of duty, and really bring in top talent for short terms of duty.”
But short-term hiring can’t solve the aging of the federal workforce. The report said “there are almost five times more information technology employees in government who are older than 60 than under 30.” In fact, it said employees younger than 30 make up less than 8 percent of the federal workforce compared to 24 percent in the private sector.
That’s why agencies need to appeal directly to millennials. Some have used the Pathways Programs to funnel high school and college graduates directly into public service.
But the hiring freeze has been detrimental to efforts to recruit young people, and further reductions in workforce could likely reduce the number of jobs available for young people to fill.
Working Across Agencies
The report also suggests using the President’s Management Council, which is composed of COOs who advise the president on government reform, the authority to begin working across agencies to reduce duplicative, overlapping and fragmented programs and expand shared services.
Bulman said that federal agencies have done a good job of streamlining internally, but there’s still a considerable amount of overlapping, duplicative programs, where agencies are performing the same functions.
Elizabeth McGrath, former DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer and current director for the Federal sector at Deloitte, said it’s all about optimizing horizontally, where the work actually gets done, rather than just vertically.
“It’s all about thinking ‘Are these core competencies? Is there a different place that can do this better? How much control will I have? Will I get the performance that I need?’” she said. “This is why culture is so incredibly important. It’s very easy to say ‘hey, let’s consolidate. Hey, let’s do shared services.’ Having been in enterprise-wide IT programs and even multi-agency IT programs, you’ll see culture at its finest.”
There are some examples of technology having helped initiatives like these along. GAO recently reported that consolidating federal data centers saved about $2.3 billion.
The report also said that Customs and Border Protection created an online portal that consolidated all the processes and requirements from the 47 federal agencies involved in trade across the borders.
“We should all be some level of technology savvy,” McGrath said. “We don’t have to be experts, but we have to understand, as people in the business community, the management community, how can we use technology to achieve the outcomes. … This is the time for bold thinking, and everybody should understand how technology can drive the outcomes that we’re talking about.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.