Tuesday, June 9, 2015
The success of a Presidential administration rests in the hands of leadership - political appointees and career executives who are responsible for implementing policy, achieving mission outcomes, and running government operations. By focusing on “leadership talent” as a key priority, the next President can significantly enhance government’s capacity for political and career executives to deliver strong results for the Nation.

On May 27, the IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service co-hosted a Roundtable to discuss how effective leaders can help drive successful outcomes for the next Presidential term. An exceptional group of current and former senior officials from Administrations of both parties, leaders from Capitol Hill, as well as experts from academia and the private and non-profit sectors participated in a robust discussion. The meeting was the second of six planned Roundtables in our “Management Roadmap” series, part of a multi-pronged Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative, through which the Partnership seeks to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations[1] (see discussion of the first Roundtable.)

The IBM Center is pleased to collaborate with the Partnership to help the next Administration get off to a strong start, and build sustained management excellence thereafter. We are grateful for the many distinguished leaders who contributed their time and insights last week, and to former Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Gould for his expert facilitation of the session.


Why is Leadership Talent Key to Success?

The Partnership and the Center for The Business of Government have long advocated that attention be paid to leadership issues. Skilled leaders are a powerful determinant of organizational success. Investing time and resources in talent management has proven over time to improve outcomes from a mission, managerial, political and economic perspective. And this is not just a public sector challenge – fostering executive talent is a challenge in the private sector, where leading companies wrestle with very similar issues.

Effective leaders can set direction though building vision, allocating resources, and building a culture of ethics and trust. This frame enables leaders to guide results across the talent “value chain” -- in which organizations recruit, hire, compensate, onboard, train, manage, evaluate, develop and separate/retire a productive workforce. Indeed, talent is essential to a well-implemented performance management cycle that includes strategy, resources, operations, execution, and evaluation, as well as strong change management that includes communication, engagement, feedback, priority setting, and measurement to address influencers within and between organizations in the government ecosystem.

In the public sector, leadership talent includes a broad array of executives whose collaboration – or lack thereof – sets the tone for agency and program success or failure. These executives include political appointees and Senior Executive Service (SES)-level career officials in program and functional (Human Resources, Information Technology, Finance, Acquisition, etc.) areas, who guide civil servants and contractors and connect with State and Local government, Congress, and even the Judiciary to deliver on agency missions.   

With this as background, the May Roundtable discussion started with three premises: 

  • Political appointees and career SES form the leadership core of our government – good leaders are essential to strong public sector outcomes.
  • Leadership matters for achieving Presidential priorities – without effective leadership the next Administration’s objectives will not be met, and the next White House will manage more risks and fewer opportunities.
  • The Ready to Govern initiative is focused on setting the next administration up for success – that starts with effective political and career SES leadership.


Building on the Current Leadership Talent Initiatives

Good management is a non-partisan issue. Roundtable participants from both parties recognize the importance of building on success. In the current Administration, key building blocks include two new initiatives aimed at strengthening leadership in government, highlighted in the FY 2016 budget request:

  • White House Advisory Group on SES Reform: The group, comprised of current and aspiring SES, as well as Senior Level and Senior Technical professionals, is working to put together a set of recommendations for improving the way the federal government recruits, hires, develops and retains senior career leaders.
  • White House Leadership Development Program: The program, currently under development, will provide an opportunity for future senior career leaders to participate in rotational assignments and drive progress on Cross-Agency Priority Goals. The program will help develop leadership competencies and give participants a chance to build coalitions and work across government to solve problems.

In addition, several agencies are piloting new approaches to recruiting, hiring and onboarding executives, with the goal of reducing the time to hire, improving the quality and diversity of new hires – foremost among these are hiring authorities for the US Digital Service in OMB, the General Services Administration’s 18F program, and expedited hiring processes for cybersecurity professionals.


Insights from the Roundtable

Roundtable discussions addressed five different aspects of the leadership talent issue.  Following are some of the suggestions from each area.

Strengthening the SES.  Participants focused on ways to strengthen the SES with regard to training, organization, and operation. Insights include:

  • Increase clarity of expectations and accountability for SES leaders
  • Train and develop SES leaders as an ongoing priority
  • Strengthen the SES as an enterprise-wide asset, such as:
    • Implement rotational assignments in the SES
    • Rethink SES to consider a smaller cadre of management focused cross-agency executives such as a “Public Service Executive Corps,” or create a top tier of “enterprise executives” who deploy across government
  • Build a stronger leadership pipeline (internal and external) 

Innovations in Executive Talent Acquisition.  This discussion addressed how models of hiring could be replicated and scaled for the SES, as well as any hiring flexibilities that could be implemented. Insights include:

  • Increase apprenticeship programs
  • Foster a culture that supports innovation and risk taking
  • Establish Chief Talent Officers in agencies, who would take a strategic view on identifying current and future talent needs
  • Develop processes to scale innovations like GSA’s 18F program

Incentives and Accountability.  Participants examined how to drive accountability for performance, set objectives and expectations, and measure performance. Insights include:

  • Assess and develop talent by adapting commercial best practices
  • Increase accountability through a consistent performance management system that includes employee feedback, through means such as "360 reviews" of managers
  • Develop high quality performance plans, with clear goals and outcomes tied to mission goals
  • Evaluate team performance in achieving team goals
  • Increase nonfinancial incentives, including rotational employment, recognition, and sabbaticals

Career/political interface.   This discussion assessed ways to foster strong teams of SES and political appointees through effective training and onboarding strategies. Insights include:

  • Onboard and train career and political leaders together
  • Foster partnerships across the career and political ranks
  • Identify critical information about key career/political relationships for transition teams
  • Hire in blocks for positions by functional area (e.g., Chief Information Officers, Chief Financial Officers) across career and political ranks

Enablers.    Participants discussed implementation strategies, and what tools and resources may be needed to be used to achieve the goals discussed above. Insights include:

  • Facilitate collaboration between the White House Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
  • Reform the HR process toward outcomes and away from compliance, with support for this coming from agency heads
  • Incentivize Chief Human Capital Officers to be strategic change agents, rather than compliance managers
  • Consider alternative compensation models
  • Integrate governance of human capital across agencies
  • Communicate compelling stories about how strong talent impacts mission achievement


People are the foundation upon which the next administration will implement its agenda.  Focusing on the leadership cadre – both political appointees and career executives –  a new Presidency can get off to a fast start and set up for success over the next four years. Incoming administrations face a complex set of urgent priorities, and focusing on senior leadership can seem like something that can be handled “later.” However, with an early focus on leadership (including during transition planning) the next President can greatly increase the capacity to implement policy effectively.



[1] The effort includes an education component for transition teams around four sets of activities:   1. strengthening the transition process, 2. congressional support for efficient appointments in a new administration, 3. preparing appointees to succeed in their new roles, and 4. the “Management Roadmap” to develop an agenda for sustained improvement in government’s effectiveness.