By Steve Kelman

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Why civil servants should have a 'seat at the table'

Executive Team (Shutterstock Image)

I saw recently a report of a speech by Lisa Danzig, the Office of Management and Budget's lead official on performance measurement in the federal government. The speech covered a number of issues, but the article I saw on it highlighted one of them in its headline, "Obama Team Aims to Ensure Agency Performance Goals Outlive This Administration." And the only specific example presented of how Danzig hopes to get performance management institutionalized in the next administration was "by having agencies identify career employees as goal leaders in preparation for the change in administrations."

Continuation of management improvement goals across administrations is a worthy objective, especially given the paucity of areas of agreement between our warring political parties. And actually there has been a fairly good job in a number of management areas -- performance measurement, financial management, and improper payments come to mind -- in achieving such continuity, though any progress in these areas tends to get swept away by the tidal waves of attention that high-profile management failures (whether Hurricane Katrina response or the Veterans Affairs Department's scheduling woes) inevitably attract.

But what caught my eye in Danzig's statement was her idea that the administration should be just now start looking to identify career employees as goal leaders.

Her observation reminded me of the bill by Tom Davis, then chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee (and a good friend), that included a provision -- later adopted into law -- to create a politically appointed Chief Acquisition Officer for each agency, at a level above the agency Senior Procurement Executive, who is a career official. Part of the argument for this was that acquisition includes the important area of program management and not just contracting -- which is true, but does not necessarily require that the position be a political post.

Much of the argument, though, was a broader one: If the highest contracting official at an agency was a career person, they would never have a "seat at the table" when important decisions were being made, because only politicals were present at those meetings.

I remember my reaction at at the time (as somebody who had himself been a political official in the Clinton administration): "Why can't career people have a seat at the table?"

Political appointees and career civil servants do bring different skills to an agency. Politicals are a voice for dynamism, change and often energy. Their interest brings visibility to an issue -- which is why, in the case of the Obama administration's high-priority performance goals, politicals in an agency or even in the White House were often named goal leaders. Careerists, by contrast, are a voice for expertise and ballast, for maintaining interest in an important area when the political attention has wandered. Without both voices at the table, an organization will be handicapped.

I am realistic enough to know that politicals often distrust career folks and hence exclude them from the table. But I also note with interest that when politicals start to think about continuity, about not dropping the ball, about ballast -- as did Danzig in these remarks -- they suddenly remember the importance of career government employees. And the experience with Chief Acquisition Officers has, I think, been mixed at best. They are often double-hatted politicals (in fact, sometimes they have even more than two hats) who lack the expertise and ongoing engagement to be effective at the table even if they are present. Thus, they show the shortcomings of politicals in the process.

I would therefore urge politicals to recognize what careerists can bring to an agency -- and why they should be "at the table" long before an administration is moving toward its end.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 08, 2015 at 5:55 AM


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