Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post’

Where Is Waldo?

August 28, 2009

Everyone is familiar with the anonymous military aide who follows the President everywhere carrying the codes to launch nuclear missile attacks. Less known is the anonymous archivist from the National Archives who tracks the President’s minute-by-minute meetings and phone calls.

These records are typically available to historians years later.  Well, President Obama’s “greater transparency” initiative has resulting in some of this information being available on an almost real-time basis.  With this information, the Washington Post has launched “POTUS Tracker” (POTUS is the insider acronym for “President of the United States”).

The most valuable commodity of any President is how he uses his time.  This new website gives insight into how President Obama is spending his. It is a veritable “where is Waldo!”  It graphically depicts what kinds of issues he’s addressing, who he is meeting with, where he is having events around the country, and the kinds of meetings (press conference, rally, etc.).

For those who like to track statistics and are despairing of those of their favorite baseball team, this might be the antidote!


Obama’s Contracting Initiatives: An Update

July 29, 2009

President Obama’s 2008 election campaign made strong commitments to reduce the government’s dependence on the use of contractors. Now come the implementation details:

The Bush Administration had been a big promoter of the use of contractors, basically doubling spending on contracting to about $500 billion a year. Congress pushed back on some initiatives to outsource some government functions – even when the Republicans controlled the Congress.  It increased restrictions, embedded study requirements regarding the appropriate balance of government vs. private employees, required the Administration (in the Defense Department authorization bill) to develope a definition of what constitutes “inherently governmental” positions, and directed the Intelligence Community to conduct an assessment of its staffing mix between public and private resources, and the Intel Community is beginning to tilt its staffing mix toward more government hires.  Most recently, the Senate has proposed banning all outsourcing studies.

In his first 100 days, President Obama signed a memorandum on contracting reform directing a re-assessment of public vs. private sectors in providing governmental services.  The new deputy secretary of Defense issued internal guidance on how Defense agencies should address this, as well.  The presidential memo included several studies and deadlines.  Several of those have just been released, according to a story by Joe Davidson in today’s Washington Post, “OMB Moves to Cut Outside Contractors.”

According to the Post article, OMB has (or will) issue four guidance memos to agencies:

  • Improving Government Acquisition.  This memo set out guidance to agencies to review their existing contracts and buying practices in order to save $40 billion a year through better practices.  It requires them to:  (1)  develop plans to save 7 percent of contract spending over the next two years (3.5 percent in fiscal year 2010; 3.5 percent in fiscal year 2011); and (2) reduce by 10 percent next year the amount of dollars awarded under “high risk contracting authorities” such as non-competitive contracts, cost-reimbursement contracts, and time-and-material contracts.
  • Managing the Multi-Sector Workforce.  This memo sets out initial guidance to help agencies improve their management of their combined public sector and contractor workforces.  It requires agencies to (1) adopt a human capital planning framework that covers their multi-sector workforce, (2) pilot an analysis of at least one program where the agency has a concern about an over-reliance on contractors, and (3) develop guidelines for when to in-source work to government employees (along with an attachment based on earlier guidance developed by the Defense Department).
  • Improving the Use of Contractor Performance Information.   This memo, directed to agency procurement officers, requires them to submit an electronic record of contracting performance to a central governmentwide database.  It also directs them to develop internal procedures and designate individuals to be in charge of ensuring contracts are assessed. 
  • A third memo will be issued by OMB in the Fall covering competition, contract types, acquisition workforce, and when outsourcing is or is not appropriate.

The private sector, in an assessment by the research firm FedSources, seems to have already recognized that the growth in contract spending may be over.  In a story last month by Elise Castelli for Federal Times, “Contract Spending Expected to Flatten,” she wrote that the study “projects government contract spending to grow at a compound annual rate of 2 percent between 2008 and 2014.  That’s a sharp contrast to the 12 percent compound annual growth rate of the last six years.”

Leadership Advice: Don’t Ignore Management 101

July 9, 2009

I attended an event yesterday evening billed as “What It Takes to Change Government.” Hosted by the Partnership for Public Service, it was the culmination of a nearly two-year research project supported by Booz Allen Hamilton as their public service contribution to the presidential transition effort.

Background.  The report, summarized by the Washington Post’s Joe Davidson in yesterday’s edition, set out to identify the methods and techniques of successful leaders.  The study was led by Harvard’s Steve Kelman, who studied 17 federal leaders, both successful and unsuccessful, to find out what they did different.  In the process, his research team interviewed these leaders.  In addition, they interviewed more than 250 others – public servants, OMB and GAO staffs, congressional staff, and other stakeholders — about these leaders’ performance.  The interview data were used to test 46 hypotheses (based on a review of the management literature) related to political management, leadership and internal capabilities, and strategy development.

Were successful leaders made or born?  Were external factors (e.g., luck) more important than leadership behaviors?  Is leadership more important than management?  See the academic version of the paper! 

What did they find?  The findings were not startling.  They found the basics work.  Successful leaders used similar techniques, and these techniques can be found in any Management 101 course: develop a strategic plan with a small number of goals, work proactively with stakeholders (including employees), use performance measures to assess progress and hold people accountable, and spend time managing your organization. Probably the most counter-intuitive point was:  reorganize when necessary.  Typically, public sector leaders avoid reorganizations because they are so divisive and time-consuming.

Unsuccessful leaders tended to not use these techniques.  For example, they might develop a strategic plan, but not engage employees or stakeholders.  The unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) question is:  if we know what works, why don’t people do it?

The event.  The Partnership event showcased Dr. Kelman and three former leaders interviewed during the project who were judged as “successful,” David Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, Adm. James Loy, former commandant of the Coast Guard, and Charles Rossetti, former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.   Interestingly, each headed agencies with few or no other political appointees and each had a fixed term of office. 

Each offered their insights on leadership elements, often overlapping with the findings of the report.  For example, Walker cited the importance of strategic planning, employee feedback, customer satisfaction, and quality of work.  Admiral Loy advised to look for people who are “damn good at those thinks you’re not so good at.  Whose opinion you value.  Whose counsel you trust.  Surround yourself, so to speak, with those elements that will not only strengthen your strengths, but strengthen your shortfalls.”

Interesting tidbits.  The report was well-summarized by the news media.  However, here are some interesting highlights from both the report and the event:

  • Successful agency heads had one-tenth the number of political appointees working for them than those judged as unsuccessful.
  • Unsuccessful leaders determined goals without substantial data regarding the external environment, internal capabilities, or the risks they faced.
  • The more time spent outside the agency, the less likely a leader is to succeed.  Successful leaders spent about one-half their time focused within their agency.
  • When using performance measures, unsuccessful leaders most often considered only cost and production.  Successful leaders more often added measures of customer satisfaction and quality, oftentimes based on measures developed outside their agency as a way of adding credibility.
  • Three-quarters of successful agency leaders reorganized their agencies – not because they wanted to do so, but because their agency’s existing structure hindered achieving goals.  For example, Rossetti said IRS had 16 different IT departments.  To create an interoperable IT system, he consolidated them into one.

Want more on the elements of Management 101?  Visit the IBM Center’s transition book on-line:  “The Operator’s Manual for the New Administration!”

Transparency: an IT Dashboard

June 30, 2009

As promised, federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra (described by the Washington Post as “King of Geek“)  launched an “IT Dashboard” today that provides the public an accessible view of how  individual agencies in the federal government are spending their technology dollars.  Now this is transparency with a purpose!  Previously, this kind of information was available only annually, buried in an obscure table in the OMB budget (see Fiscal Year 2010 supplemental tables for an example).

Federal Computer Week reports that the website will allow users to embed charts and other information on their own websites and that agencies are responsible for updating cost, schedule, and performance information on a monthly basis.

Recovery Act Tracking

June 23, 2009

recovery1The Washington Post reports today that a new survey shows citizens’ confidence is slipping in their belief that the Recovery Act will boost the economy. 

Whoever was surveyed clearly has not been reading OMB guidance on expectations for how these monies will be tracked!

The complexity of implementing the Recovery Act is becoming clearer over time.  In fact, this was the focus of the feature article in this month’s Government Executive magazine, “Untangling the Recovery.”  In that article, author Robert Brodsky notes: “For the nation’s 2.7 million federal employees, the stimulus plan represents a more personal mission. It is a chance for redemption, to convince the rest of the world that the government still can operate as an efficient and effective management organization.”

Even the Washington Post notes: “Tracking Stimulus Spending May Not Be as Easy as Promised,” and cites how a private website,, is reporting seemingly more complete information, faster.  But this private site doesn’t have to develop guidance for, and document, how many jobs are being saved or created! 

Government Executive’s Katherine Peters notes that tracking the number of jobs will be tricky and “documenting that number may take some fancy footwork.”  Federal Times’ Gregg Carlstrom wrote a couple weeks ago that the Office of Management and Budget would be coming out with guidance last week.  But it was delayed; when circulated to agencies for comment, OMB got more than 700 comments to resolve.  So it was released late yesterday.

The new OMB guidance, dated June 22, finally clarifies the two streams of data (money going out vs. reporting back on dollars spent, project results, and jobs created or saved).  It also creates a distinction between what it does vs. what the Recovery Board does by creating a new, separate website.  The new website,, is to be used by grant, contract, and loan recipients and sub-recipients to report back to the federal government.  The new guidance explains how they are to report information on this new website.  It also promises: “Additional guidance to Federal government contractors will be forthcoming. . . revised guidance on lobbyist communications is also forthcoming.”

The guidance also includes a supplement which, for the first time, lists all 306 federal programs that receive Recovery Act funds and are included in the reporting system.  Some of these are listed here, along with their Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number, to provide some flavor of the diversity of this effort:

The variety suggests the complexity of reporting back data in a consistent manner.  But the guidance also asks for help:  “The general public and non-governmental entities interested in “good government” can help with data quality, as well, by highlight problems for correction.”  They’ll be able to do this via a feedback mechanism on the soon-to-be re-designed Recovery.Gov website.

UPDATE: Robert Brodsky and Elizabeth Newell at Government Executive, wrote a good summary of the guidance in “Stimulus Guidance Calls for More Detailed Reporting.”

Status of Political Appointments: June 2009

June 17, 2009

People have been asking me why I’m still doing a transition blog:  “Isn’t the transition over?”  Well, no.

It’s five months into the Obama Administration and according to the Washington Post’s Head Count, only 23 percent (146) of the top 492 jobs have been filled.  There’s yet to be an orientation of new incoming appointees, either.  Just last week GSA identified the Hay Group to organize and run the orientation.  This may not have been on the fast track in part because there wasn’t a critical mass of appointees in place to orient!  And the President’s Management Council – largely comprised of departmental deputy secretaries – hasn’t convened yet (to my knowledge) because there isn’t a quorum of deputy secretaries.

When visitors from foreign government come through our office asking about the transition progress of the new Obama Administration, I try to explain this to them.  They seem baffled.  How can the U.S. Government be fighting two wars, address a major economic crisis, pursue healthcare reform, combat climate change, and have less than a quarter of its top government executives in place?

I explain how Don Gips, the head of the president’s selection and appointment process, and his deputy, David Jacobson, have now both been selected for appointments as ambassadors.  These critical vacancies have the potential to slow the selection process.

I also explain how top level appointees need to be confirmed by the Senate.  I also share with them how this process isn’t always based on assessing the qualifications of the appointees, either.  For example, the hardcopy version of this week’s Federal Times notes that Senate floor votes on at least 25 nominees are being held up by some Republicans because they are miffed that the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor is scheduled for mid-July, which is sooner than they would like.  This hold up includes positions such as the chief lawyer for the State Department, an undersecretary for Homeland Security, and I guess Jeff Zients as well, whose nomination was voted out of committee a few days ago.

I get a blank look from these foreign visitors.  I just shrug.  I can’t explain it either!  But they better understand why more power and authority is being centralized in the White House, where most appointees do not need to be confirmed.  There, positions have been filled quickly and they are able to move forward on the president’s agenda.

Performance Management: Obama Style

June 16, 2009

People have been asking me:  What’s the Obama performance management agenda?  I keep saying, “you’ll have to wait until his chief performance officer gets on board.”

Well, that may be true in some respects, but the agenda is steadily being fleshed out.  The President’s FY 2010 budget, according to Federal Times, laid out a set of specifics that agencies will have to develop in the coming months:

• Establish a comprehensive measurement system to link programs with agency and governmentwide performance goals.

• Reform program assessments to report on and explain performance trends, risks and improvement plans.

• Identify agency officials who will ensure performance improvement plans work.

• Revamp the Bush administration’s to make performance data agencies submit easily accessible to the public, Congress and other stakeholders.

• Launch a governmentwide research program to compare the effectiveness of different program strategies to ensure programs achieve their goals.

And last week, the Office of Management and Budget released guidance to agencies in developing their FY 2011 budget and performance plans.  There, it said “Over the next several months, OMB also will work with Congress, interagency management councils, experts in Federal management policy, Federal employees, and other key stakeholders to craft a broad management and performance framework” that will address both presidential priorities as well as long-standing management challenges.

The guidance went on to require agencies to identify, by July 31st, a set of “high-priority performance goals” where there will be “regular reviews of the progress agencies are making.”  The guidance offers criteria for what the goals should look like and directs the Performance Improvement Council to work together to develop a common template for their agencies to report their goals and measures of progress.

NOTE: It’s interesting how this OMB guidance memo was described by different media outlets.  The memo covered several topics and different media covered different aspects.  Government Executive’s Elizabeth Newell covered the performance element; Federal Times’ Stephen Losey focused on the budget element; the Washington Post’s Joe Davidson emphasized the hiring reform element; and Federal Computer Week’s Alice Lipowicz highlights the memo’s emphasis of IT investment goals around transparency and collaboration.

Human Capital is Out, People Are In

June 2, 2009

PeopleJohn Berry, the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, seems to want to change the conversation!  He doesn’t like the term “human capital,” but does like the term “people.”  Maybe the General Services Agency’s the new star agency, since they already have a Chief People Officer!

But more substantively, he’s beginning to outline the Obama Administration’s people policies, according to Government Executive’s Alyssa Rosenberg.  He has defined three near-term priorities and three longer-term priorities:

Near Term priorities, which he has assigned to action teams within the Office of Personnel Management, to:

  • simplify the hiring process
  • design more ambitious work-life balance programs, and
  • improve veterans’ preference programs.

Long Term priorities, which will likely require large scale study and stakeholder involvement:

  • Pay reform, which will focus on the need to:
    • create a fair and credible performance appraisal and accountability system
    • develop training that would prepare employees for promotion and support them throughout their careers; and
    • establish genuine parity between federal and private-sector salaries for employees in comparable occupations.
  • increasing the diversity of the federal workforce, and
  • controlling costs in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

According to Federal Times’ Stephen Losey, Berry says he met with President Obama to outline his agenda and the President told him he could pursue pay parity only if he can put in place a credible employee performance management system.

In tandem to Berry’s agenda, Congress is also taking some action on personnel issues.  A Senate committee has voted out legislation on expanding telework and allowing temporary hires of retired federal employees in critical jobs, without having their pensions reduced.  The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe notes, in “Congress to Consider a Flurry of Bills Aimed at Federal Workers,” that this may be the result of a friendlier climate on the Hill toward federal workers, but “Some senior Republican staffers say the flurry of legislative activity is more a signal of growing discontent on Capitol Hill with a government hiring-and-pay system that lags far behind the private sector than the manifestation of a friendlier political climate for federal employees.”

In either case, the actions of both the Administration and the Hill will likely contribute to Obama’s goal of “making government cool again.”

Obama Workforce Agenda

May 20, 2009

PeopleA lot of people have been asking me – what is Obama’s human capital agenda?  I think it’s still evolving.  But in conversations over the past few weeks with friends and colleagues who are at the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, and who are agency chief human capital officers – and reading the new budget proposals – I’m beginning to see an outline. 

This notional outline, though, was reinforced this morning when the Partnership for Public Service released its biennial “Best Places to Work” survey.  It got a good nod via a front page Washington Post article, as well: “Money’s Nice, But a Good Boss is Better,” by Steve Vogel.

The Partnership’s breakfast event featured OMB director Peter Orzag, who offered some brief, but significant, remarks.  First, he said that OMB will be expecting improvement plans from agencies that ranked low on the Partnership’s survey results.  And second, he said there are four things he thought would help achieve President Obama’s goal of “making government cool again.”  Those four include efforts to: revamp the hiring process; increase training and mentoring programs; emphasize that performance matters; and promote public service.

So what am I seeing as the outline of the Obama workforce agenda?  There seem to be four areas of emphasis.  They are not quite as direct as the Bush President’s Management Agenda’s “strategic management of human capital” emphasis, but they do build on the Obama commitment to make government “cool” again:

Succession planning.  In the Bush Agenda, this was called strategic human capital planning. Being strategic is important in defining an organization’s capabilities.  But the reality is that this will occur in the context of a huge demographic shift in the workforce over the course of the next four years.  The Partnership and others estimate that one-third of the workforce – about 600,000 — will turn over before the end of the first Obama administration.  This offers a chance to change the skill mix, but it also means there has to be a hand-off of institutional knowledge on a very large scale.

Streamlined hiring.  The federal hiring system is seen as largely deficient because it almost screens out top talent by being so slow.  Efforts, such as the Partnership’s “Extreme Hiring Makeovers” haven’t changed agency behaviors on a large scale.  Congressional frustration has led to legislative proposals to dictate what should be done administratively.  President Obama’s first budget proposes reform.  The new director of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry, promises quick action.  Given all this high level focus, maybe something positive will happen.  The hiring of 600,000 new employees should be a good “burning platform” to prod action!  Best practices in places like the Border Patrol are worth examining.

Engaged employees.  Engaged federal employees, according to the Partnership, are 20 percent more productive than the average employee.  Engaged employees derive a sense of personal accomplishment from their work, believes their talent is well used and is given a chance to develop professionally.  The source of this is good agency leadership and good line managers, so there will need to be a concerted effort to undertake a number of specific actions related to their training and mentoring to reach this goal.  The budget proposes investment in training and management rotations to better develop leaders.

Collaborative workplaces.  The Millennial Generation expects to work collaboratively, and to leverage their social networks to get work done, often via Web 2.0 technologies.  To them, work is not a place but an attitude.  The Obama Administration says it wants to be increasingly collaborative.  It’s a different way of working.  A directive for how to do this is still under development.  But there are some interesting efforts already underway to develop the foundation for this, such as the

Obviously, there is potentially any number of other issues that could be on the agenda – performance pay is being reconsidered, the human resources management line-of-business seems to be quiet, and developing greater capacity among the HR workforce itself. But if new agency leaders and the chief human capital officers across the government focus on these four areas, they’d likely be well on the way toward making government cool!

Lessons Learned: Past Political Appointees

May 12, 2009

DeSeveCoverIf you had a high level job, what advice would you leave for your successor?

The IBM Center released a new report today: “Speeding Up the Learning Curve:  Observations from a Survey of Seasoned Political Appointees,” by Ed DeSeve.  The survey was jointly sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration, the Partnership for Public Service, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute.  At the time of the survey, DeSeve was with the Fels Institute.

According to the Washington Post, there are about 500 top political appointees that are appointed by the President to lead major federal agencies whose appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.  The outgoing Senate- confirmed appointees of President George W. Bush shared their insights in this September 2008 survey.  This was a seasoned group of appointees, often with prior public service.

Survey respondents offered six observations:

  • Knowledge of ethical standards and financial disclosure rules is needed to be rapidly effective.  This is especially true during the confirmation process, but this knowledge was seen as especially important in the early months in office.  Along with this came the need to be clear on what was expected of them.  Appointees wanted direction on how they would be measured in their jobs by the White House, as well.
  • Performance and results matter.  Survey respondents said they thought that two dimensions of performance were important or very important:  measuring organizational results, and evaluating employee performance.  Setting standards of performance and measuring progress against those standards was seen as more important than financial, contract, or pay and benefits management.
  • Policy development and implementation depend on understanding processes.  Appointees said four factors ranked high: (21) understanding the president’s priorities, (2) knowing how the executive branch works, (3) understanding the budget process, and (4) mastering the policy development process.
  • Managing relationships matter.  The group rated relationships with the Office of Management and Budget, career employees, and Congress were at the top of their list.
  • Leadership is a key competency.  All appointees surveyed cited leadership as an important competency.  This was followed closely by negotiation and communication skills.
  • Support of career executives is critical.  The survey indicated that successful political appointees felt career executives provided them with three essential ingredients:  (1) knowledge of the agency’s policies and processes, (2) support for the goals of new leaders, and (3) an understanding of the agency’s internal culture.

Of the 66 survey respondents, 56 percent noted that it took four or more months from the time they were officially nominated until confirmation.  In 10 percent of the cases, the time required was 10 months or more. (BTW, as of today, there are 100 people confirmed to top positions. . . .15 percent of the total).