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Roughly 10 years ago I participated in a meeting with CFOs from around the federal government, where we discussed what the next decade would have in store for public sector managers. What was the dominant concern on everyone's mind that day? The workforce. The baby boomers within government were set to begin retiring in 2010, meaning we were on the cusp of losing many leaders with great institutional knowledge and productivity.
It was becoming increasingly apparent, even in 2005, that technology was accelerating and that we lacked the right skill sets in government to leverage it fully and in a timely way. We also recognised that government operations promised to become more complex as the nature of threats to American security - terrorism, natural disasters, financial improprieties - were becoming increasingly more serious and diverse.
As a result, we concluded that the government was at a critical juncture in terms of our workforce. Our solution involved investment in the workforce of the future through enhanced recruiting, retention, training, and so on. If not, we concluded, we could expect to see a degradation of government management effectiveness. At that time, no-one in the room could paint an accurate picture of what form the degradation would take, but we knew it would manifest itself in one form or another.
Crisis as the new normal
A troubling narrative of the US government over the past several years has been the emergence of a series of management and leadership crises, which some have gone as far as to characterise as scandals. The IRS, the General Services Administration, the Veterans' Health Administration, the Office of Personnel Management, and Health and Human Services have all dealt with a substantial and acute management failure of some kind in recent years.
The aftermath of such failures has included public outcry, intense media coverage, and large-scale congressional investigations, all of which have justifiably focused on what were the particular events or mistakes that led to the crisis and who should be held accountable. However, less prominent in this public dialogue has been whether the challenges we are seeing today are, at least in part, borne out of a longer-term and steady divestment of our workforce.
In 2005, we were concerned about emerging skill gaps resulting from retirements, rapid changes in technology, and mission threats. In response, have we done enough to nurture and grow the skills and disciplines that are the necessary enablers for strong government performance?
I believe many federal managers today would respond with an emphatic ‘no' and point to recent hiring freezes, furloughs and reduced emphasis on training as evidence of systemic under-investment. If the answer is ‘no', then perhaps the recent spate of management crises should be the subject of an additional line of questioning. Specifically, has an underinvestment in developing and growing the talent base of the government's workforce contributed in some way to some of the higher-profile challenges we have seen recently in government performance?
Going for ‘good' government
I should be very clear that the notion of greater investment need not equate or lead to a larger workforce. In fact, I believe it could be argued quite convincingly that we are better off with a smaller, highly-skilled and highly-trained workforce than a larger one that does not meet the key benchmarks of excellence and preparedness.
Thus, I believe I am raising an issue that is bipartisan at its core. In our political discourse today, there are very legitimate differences of opinion and perspective about the role of government. However, I believe both sides agree that, whether large or small, proactive or reactive, the government we do have should function effectively and with integrity.
For the public servants in government who are working to maintain the safety of our skies, roads, food, water supply and schools and the security of our borders, how do we ensure that they have the right tools to perform at the highest possible level of excellence? If you are of the belief that the government has some role to play in these various efforts, whether that role be large or small, I think it's fair to say we want the right people with the right skills and tools.
And very often we have just that. The public's attention on the government often feels like it is exclusively on where we fall short, but there have been numerous remarkable accomplishments by federal employees and teams over the past decade that would make even the most strident critic of government feel a sense of patriotism and pride. If you doubt this conclusion, I encourage you to spend some time on servicetoamericamedals.org, where, thanks to the important work of the Partnership for Public Service, some of the most inspiring federal work is recognised and celebrated.
I believe that a fair assessment of government effectiveness would recognise extraordinary pockets of success, remarkably consistent and noteworthy performance in many key areas that improve the quality of life for all Americans. However, there are also a number of areas with systemic underperformance and, periodically, pockets of acute failure. The right investments in our workforce over the next several years can shift the balance away from failure towards success.
The right question is…
A high-functioning federal workforce opens the door to so many advancements in government excellence. But it needs to be cultivated and treated with care and diligence. In the wake of some of the recent high-profile failures, our focus rightfully began with: “How did this happen?” and “Who is responsible?” But we need to transition the conversation in due course towards questions with longer-term and lasting implications: “What did we learn?” and “What investments will be necessary to ensure better results in the future?”
Although I spent nearly 20 years as a federal employee, it is when I am away from work that I have a greater appreciation of the importance of a well-functioning government. When I serve my children breakfast before school in the morning, I can expect that food to be free from additives. Or when my family and I board an airplane to visit our extended family, I expect that all the right controls will be in place and executed to ensure the plane takes off and lands safely. It is in these moments that I realise just how high the stakes are to make sure we sustain a high-performing government.
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