Reforming A Federal Agency: My Top 10 Thoughts to Unify Organizations

Ever since the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published OMB Memo 17-22 in April, a lot of attention has been paid to reform in Federal agencies.  Agencies across the Federal government have begun the process of figuring out how to improve performance, reduce costs, and streamline operations of their organizations and, for many, meaningful changes are emerging. The history of radical change is long and storied, often driven by challenging outmoded thinking, developing new technology, and/or changing cultural sensibilities. Shaping any change starts with creating a vision of the desired end-state and explicitly identifying the barriers for achieving the desired vision.  While the vision will undoubtedly vary by agency, I believe there are some universal barriers that need to be addressed to achieve the desired end state.

So, in the spirit of speaking plainly about barriers to change, I offer my top 10 thoughts on barriers to systemic reform across Federal agencies. Perhaps some plain statements about the challenges I see in reforming the Federal government can spark a dialogue that will help agencies focus on some core principles for achieving the aims of reform.

  1. An effectively functioning Administration and Congress are essential for creating a high performing Federal workforce. To achieve true reform, the White House and Capitol Hill will also need to improve their performance.
  2. Congress must provide a more predictable funding cycle and budget process to enable agencies to create an execute the long-term plans needed to achieve meaningful reforms.
  3. Leadership matters, perhaps now more than ever, so filling senior level vacancies in agencies should be a top priority for the Administration and Congress.
  4. Followers are just as important as leaders in achieving the transformations that are the objectives of the reform effort. Agencies must look for new and innovative ways to attract, engage, and retain top performers who will embrace and execute the vision for reform being shaped by senior leaders.
  5. One of the keys to retaining top performers is to change the rhetoric and stereotypes about the Federal workforce. While the government certainly has its share of social loafers, dishonest employees, and those who are overpaid for their contributions to the organization, that is true of any large organization.  Less energy should be spent figuring out how to make it easier to get rid of the few and more time, effort, and resources ought to be spent on retaining and motivating the majority of hardworking civil servants.
  6. Meaningful and lasting reform will only come through cooperation across all levels of agencies and between Federal agencies, Congress, and the Administration. As such, the collective Federal workforce must get back to basics, focusing on reclaiming and meeting the intractable challenges that only government agencies are able to address.
  7. A reformed and streamlined Federal government must not be designed to meet the needs of today, but those of the next decade and beyond. While incremental changes should be welcome, efforts must ultimately be focused on creating agencies that are sustainable today and optimized for tomorrow.
  8. All private sector leadership and management practices will not work when leading a large Federal agency. Federal leaders must learn with and from experts who understand the difference, and can help them adapt and apply appropriate industry best-practices to public sector environments.
  9. Effective management must be prioritized at all levels of Federal agencies. Having strong leadership is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for achieving meaningful reform. Agencies must focus on building the capabilities of effective managers to ensure reforms plans are executed. Meaningful change should be designed to live beyond the influence of its champion.
  10. True reform is not a systems or information technology challenge – it is, above all, a people issue. While new IT systems will undoubtedly be needed, the core focus must be on creating people-centered organizations where Federal workers can thrive as they gain better clarity on how their day-to-day activities drive the mission outcomes of their agencies.

Reforming a Federal agency won’t be an easy task.  But if some minor changes can be made to the way we think about the Federal workforce and how to best achieve change, perhaps the focus on significantly remaking the Federal government can provide an opportunity to realize the best our Federal workforce has to offer.

Written by:
Tim Bowden
Project & Program Management



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