COOs can make government work better -- if they're hired

Agency chief operating officers can take the lead in improving government efficiency, according to a new report.

Shutterstock image: workforce organization chart.

Agency chief operating officers can and should take the lead in improving government efficiency and service delivery, according to a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton.

But first, agencies have to hire some COOs.

Max Stein, president and CEO of the Partnership, noted at a June 15 event that only four of 15 agency deputy secretaries have been confirmed. Of the remainder, he said, six have been nominated but not confirmed and another five slots are still vacant.

Typically COOs have visibility into high levels of policymaking as well as a view into the trenches where work gets done. "With the administration seeking to make the government more effective while also cutting the number of federal employees," the report states, COOs face an uphill battle in keeping employee morale high in order to carry out the president’s agenda, especially in mission-critical areas like cybersecurity.

To address these skill gaps, the authors recommend appealing to younger demographics, as well as leaning on short-term employees, in the model of the innovation groups like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 18F, the U.S. Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

Specifically, the report states that under the Trump administration, COOs have an opportunity to work with and offer input to the Jared Kushner-led Office of American Innovation and play "an important role in implementing those policies and plans."

The authors also recommend the administration to give the President’s Management Council the authority to identify and implement its management priorities. An empowered PMC can help COOs identify opportunities for expanding shared service and eliminating cross-agency redundancies.

Participants at an event touting the report drilled down on the potential for shared services to improve efficiency and operations.

Although the private sector has long leveraged shared services to smooth their operations, the path for federal agencies has been rockier. That path is getting smoother, said the study, pointing to the General Services Administration’s two-year-old Unified Shared Services Management office as evidence.

"In a short time, the office has turned an inconsistent, ad hoc system for adopting shared services into a clear decision-making process for federal leaders to understand their options and the potential benefits of outsourcing administrative functions to other agencies or, possibly, the private sector," said the study.

Department of Housing and Urban Development COO David Eagles told FCW in an interview after the panel that one big change that has agencies looking at shared services again is President Trump's executive order on efficiency.

"It’s opened a cross-agency discussion" driven from the top level, he said.

GSA, Eagles added, has also been creative in becoming a driving, innovative force within the government for the services and facilitated their use. Eagles said he thought agencies should be required by mandate to use shared services.

Eagles also said the current state of staffing gave acting officials the chance to step up and be heard on policy matters. "This is an opportunity for [senior executives]," he said.

The Office of Management and Budget's deputy assistant director for management, Dustin Brown, told FCW after the panel that his agency is working on defining what kinds of shared services agencies should use.

"We’re still working through ideas," he said. Any services, he said, should improve all agencies’ missions.

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