Can Congress Do Its Job – And How It Affects Federal Leaders

As this column is being written, Congress is about to pass the fifth continuing resolution of this fiscal year, and many major policy issues facing the nation remain unaddressed with politics impeding development of consensus in the national interest. Democrats and Republicans alike are more interested in catering to their political bases and special interests – in order to fundraise and get reelected – than responsibly governing the nation.

 

As this column is being written, Congress is about to pass the fifth continuing resolution of this fiscal year, and many major policy issues facing the nation remain unaddressed with politics impeding development of consensus in the national interest. Democrats and Republicans alike are more interested in catering to their political bases and special interests – in order to fundraise and get reelected – than responsibly governing the nation.

This story isn’t new, as Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein have written about in their excellent work It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism and prior books and articles.

Amidst political dysfunction and noise, the reaction among federal leaders and others in the bureaucracy is often just to keep your head down and try to focus on doing your job to the best of your ability.  But there is a problem with this approach.

Career federal executives are often the ones left holding the bag when ill-conceived policy is enacted and implementation proves difficult if not impossible. When the calls for accountability come raining down from elected leaders and the public, it is usually not political decision makers who are in the cross-hairs.  

This phenomenon is covered well by the scholar Paul Light in Vision + Action = Faithful Execution: Why Government Daydreams and How to Stop the Cascade of Breakdowns that Now Haunts It. To the credit of politicos, the structure of the federal bureaucracy and civil service does play a role in some government breakdowns.

So what can SEA members and federal leaders do to change this dynamic?  Get involved and help lead the change that is being demanded of the government. SEA believes that career leaders in government are an untapped resource that can help bridge the gap between vision and execution, and that is precisely why we formed SEA’s Communities of Change (COC) last year.

If you have not yet done so, please sign up for one or more Communities of Change today and get involved with over 250 of your fellow SEA members and participants who have already done so. 

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The power of SEA is to bring the perspective of leaders across agency and functional boundaries together to help develop solutions to major challenges facing our country. But that power is only as strong as your engagement, and with more engagement we can accomplish even more, as well as presenting SEA and its members as effective #ChangeAgents.

You likely have noticed mini-polls and surveys that the Association has asked members to spend a few minutes answering.  Uptake of those surveys has been relatively low to date, but the feedback we have received is powerful because yours are untold stories in government.  For example, the Senate recently held a hearing on the impact of budgeting by continuing resolutions, omnibus spending bills, and general budgetary uncertainty. SEA submitted written testimony for the record (hyperlink letter) that included anecdotes shared by SEA members about the impacts of this manner of management on their agency and programs. SEA’s members interested in this topic are welcome to join our engagement around budget process reform (include info about the upcoming Summit on Feb26).

We need more SEA members to continue adding their voices to these mini-surveys and engaging, because there is a growing recognition of the value that career leader perspective can bring to major policy issues and debates.  By being more involved in those debates, SEA and its members can ensure that legislative and policy initiatives truly meet the needs of government, as opposed to simply sounding good but missing the mark.

To this end, I encourage members who wish to get more involved in SEA’s legislative and policy positions to write me (briefel@seniorexecs.org) and also to get involved in the CoCs which will be advising SEA’s Board of Directors and leadership team on an expanded portfolio of issues.  I encourage and welcome comments on an updated legislative and policy agenda (hyperlink the draft) that builds upon the Association’s new strategic direction and anticipates the benefit of the wisdom of our members filtering through the Communities of Change.

I look forward to working with SEA members and participants in 2018 to advance meaningful change in government. Effectively doing so may be our best bet for staving off attacks against your earned pay and benefits, as well as restoring trust in government and the nobility of public service.

By Jason Briefel, SEA Legislative Director

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