• Proper investment can lead to a smaller, yet more impactful end-product applies in many contexts
  • No matter who our next president is, they will need a high-performing federal workforce
  • Incoming political officials will witness the extraordinary talent in our government

“I have only made this one longer because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.”

I have a lifelong goal to cure my chronic long-windedness. As a result, the lesson that underlies the famous quotation from Pascal has always resonated with me. Using fewer words, if they are the right ones, is undoubtedly the best way to make your point. But finding the right words requires effort. And without this investment, you risk diluting the effectiveness of your message.

The notion that proper investment can lead to a smaller, yet more impactful end-product applies in many contexts. It is a notion that I believe has particular relevance for the US government and its workforce. Investing in the right people with the right skill sets and tools can open the door to a smaller and leaner government, which will have the potential to be higher performing than the government we have today.

But absent that investment, we place much at risk. And it is this risk that should be up on the radar screens of our current presidential candidates.

Promises, promises…

We are now right in the midst of election season. Candidates from both parties are outlining competing visions for the future. In many cases, their visions stand in stark contrast to one another and, as a result, spawn passionate and intense debate.

The policy and political tensions involved in today’s high-profile issues (e.g., immigration, national security and healthcare) are currently playing centre stage. Candidates are being asked how their promised reforms will obtain sufficient support from a divided Congress and how we will pay for bold change initiatives.

However, a question less frequently heard in the national debate is whether our government workforce is adequately equipped to meet new mandates. Take, for example, the issue of immigration, where candidates’ visions cover a wide spectrum – from new paths to citizenship to unprecedented increases in security along our southern border.

These scenarios share the expectation that implementation and execution will be free from glitches and backlogs, within budget and on schedule. And in either scenario, an important question remains: will the new president inherit a government that is capable of successfully executing on the promised visions of change?

Big versus small government

Traditional notions of American politics would lead some to conclude that only the candidates who embrace a larger role for government will be at risk of failure due to an underperforming federal workforce. I believe this to be a flawed view of the realities of executive branch leadership. No matter who our next president is, or how big or small they envision the government’s role, they will invariably find themselves in need of a high-performing federal workforce in order to be successful.

At the very minimum, our new president will want federal agencies (no matter how large or small their role) to avoid management-related failures, which often get characterised as scandals. Not only do such missteps negatively impact citizens, they also divert the attention of the chief executive and the top leaders from their original agenda and priorities.

A quick look back at the last two decades informs us that government failures take many forms – logistics miscues during emergency responses; flawed federal hiring; wasteful spending on government-sponsored activities; bureaucratic snafus that stop citizens receiving essential benefits and services; and cyber-breaches that expose sensitive information.l

Any president, regardless of political stripe, will certainly want to avoid such failures on their watch.  And any experienced leader will attest to the fact that an under-trained, under-resourced workforce will increase the likelihood of such organisational mistakes and missteps.

Beyond avoiding mistakes in ongoing operations, a new president will inevitably aim to reshape government operations to align with their priorities. No-one would argue that designing and launching new programmes or initiatives will require the federal workforce to operate with competence and skill in their planning and execution.

However, the same point can also be made in those scenarios where programmes and initiatives are dismantled or significantly downsized. To successfully reduce the footprint of government operations in a timely fashion will make big demands on the workforce. They will need to engage in robust planning, precise execution, and highly effective risk mitigation strategies to ensure that their actions achieve the intended outcome with equity, efficiency and integrity.

Thus, I believe it is in any president’s best interests (and by extension the best interests of the American people) to cultivate a high-performing government. Any president with a bold change agenda will not only need to navigate a divided Congress and find funds within a constrained budget, he or she  will also need to rely on the federal workforce to address challenges and execute mandates. Unfortunately, however, our new president will inherit a workforce that has been undernourished as of late. Hiring freezes, cuts in training budgets, and a growing drain of talent through retirement and departures to the private sector are taking their toll on our government’s capacity to perform at a high level.

That said, I have no doubt that there will be an eye-opening moment for incoming political officials when they witness the extraordinary talent in our government, and they will be further inspired by the passion for good government and sound policy that is a cornerstone of our civil servant workforce. Despite these various shining stars, the years of systemic divestment of people – and the tools they need to succeed – will be equally apparent and troubling to the next administration.

The small finish

Similar to my quest for brevity, we hear related themes and aspirations from our future potential leaders when it comes to cutting some of the fat from government. Candidates on both sides are using terms and phrases like simplify, streamline and accelerate, all with an eye towards smarter government. In some cases, candidates are maintaining even more aggressive postures to downsize and eliminate.

For all candidates with aspirations to reshape our government so that it needs fewer resources while being more effective, I think the following variation on the famous quotation that begins this blog should be heeded:

“If we had invested more in our federal workforce, we could have had a smaller government.”

 

FURTHER READING

  • Googling better government. After helping rescue healthcare.gov, Mikey Dickerson is now focusing on the US federal government’s wider deployment of digital technology. He takes time out to tell Danny Werfel why it’s no more business as usual
  • Winds of change. Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than Matthew Dowd. A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…
  • Beltway and beyond. A former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams’ view on public impact has been shaped by decades of public service. He shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
  • DC despatch. Kate Josephs reflects on her experiences driving performance improvement in the British and US governments
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
  • By the people, for the people. Colorado’s voters certainly like John Hickenlooper. Recently re-elected as governor and enjoying strong approval ratings, the former mayor of Denver tells us about his approach to policymaking and why he believes collaboration is key to success
  • To the Max. Helping US policymakers to be more effective is the task facing Max Stier and his colleagues at the Partnership for Public Service. He tells us about transforming federal government inspiring a new generation