A Framework For Public Service Leadership as a Profession

A Framework

For

Public Service Leadership as a Profession

December 2018

                                                                                                                                                          

The “Federal Public Service Leadership as a Profession” initiative was launched by the Senior Executives Association (SEA) in 2018.  SEA has determined that it is vital to professionalize the practice of leadership within the Federal government as a necessary step to restore public trust in government, which is at an all-time low.[1] 

The Federal government exists to design and deliver programs and services that promote the safety, health and security of the American citizen now and in the future.   Public confidence in the government’s ability to effectively and efficiently deliver these programs and services is directly impacted by the political and career leaders who formulate and execute those programs and services.  Our goal is to improve the profession of leadership in the Federal government to restore public trust in our government.

To accomplish that goal, SEA, through its Human Capital Leadership Community of Change, has developed this Framework, which we believe if implemented will lead to the professionalization of the practice of leadership in the Federal government.  This will be accomplished by focusing on the five core elements of any profession:

  • Providing a unique and vital service to the public;
  • Applying expert knowledge in this service;
  • Earning the public trust;
  • Establishing and upholding discipline and standards; and
  • Earning autonomy and discretion.

Establishing a Federal Public Service Leadership Profession will enable the Executive Branch to more effectively deliver what the preamble to the Constitution promises:  establish justice; ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty for our citizens.  The Profession and its members will dedicate themselves to improving the quality of life for Americans by being good stewards of taxpayer dollars; by protecting America and Americans from harm; and by upholding integrity, fairness, and justice in all matters.  

The Framework

SEA’s Human Capital Leadership Community of Change developed this Framework through an analysis of four questions:

  • What is the definition of a Federal Public Service Leader?
  • What are the unique and vital services provided by Federal Public Service Leaders?
  • What are the leadership competencies, attributes and experiences required to be Federal Public Service Leader?
  • What are the leadership development pathways for a Federal Public Service Leader?

 

  1. Definition of a Federal Public Service Leader

Federal Public Service Leaders are defined by the environment they operate within; i.e., the rules, regulations, laws and culture of the Federal government.  This environment, in turn, defines the attributes and competencies a Federal Public Service Leader requires to be successful.

The attributes of a Federal Public Sector Leader (vision, integrity, etc.) are the same for any leader, including a private sector leader, but it is the environment that a leader operates within that makes their roles unique and defines the competencies required for success.  

Thus, Federal Public Service Leaders can be defined within three broad environmental characteristics:

  • The ability to enable Federal Executive Branch to deliver what the Constitution promises: establish justice; ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty for current and future citizens.  
  • Dedication to improving the quality of life for all Americans by being good stewards of taxpayer dollars; by protecting America and Americans from harm; and by upholding integrity, fairness, and justice in all matters.
  • Expertise in establishing, navigating and sustaining Federal systems; ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of those systems; and assisting elected political leaders when delivering changes to the Federal government in support of Federal laws and regulations.

Next Steps:  The definition of a Public Service Leader can be further clarified by:

  • Drawing parallels between public and private sector leaders to define the unique characteristics and roles/responsibilities of Federal Public Sector Leaders.
  • Extending the definition of a Federal Public Service Leader to include political appointees within the Executive Branch.
  • Although the current definition is restricted to the Federal government, the definition of a “Public Service Leader” can easily be adapted to local, state and international governments, as well as the non-profit and academic sectors.
  1. What are the unique and vital services provided by Federal Public Service Leaders?

The unique and vital services provided by Federal Public Service Leaders can be defined within mission focus (“The What”) and mission support (“The How”) buckets.   Federal Public Service Leaders must leverage key leadership competencies to enable them to deliver mission results and to use mission support to deliver those results efficiently and effectively. 

This focus on mission is what distinguishes Federal Public Sector Leaders from their private sector counterparts, who are primarily concerned with return on investment (ROI) and shareholder value.  In effect, all current and future citizens are shareholders in America, which requires that multiple competing societal needs be balanced by Federal Public Service Leaders.

Mission support and mission delivery are tightly coupled and long-term success requires cross-cutting planning and execution.  Federal Public Service Leaders strategically exercise a unique sphere of influence over “The What and The How,” through well-informed planning and reliable stewardship of Federal resources. 

Next Steps: The delivery of a wide range of unique and vital services is influenced by many factors that require further study and analysis, including:

  • The impact of organizational culture when it comes to sustaining organizational effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Improving the clarity and purpose of legislative and regulatory requirements.
  • Understanding the role of risk when leading programs, including the appropriate use of risk within the Public Service context.
  • Dealing with rapid and disruptive changes in society caused by new technologies, changing demographics, and other factors.
  • Interactions with political leadership are a primary function of career senior Federal Public Service Leaders, but roles and responsibilities are unclear and that has led to many negative impacts, including declining public perceptions and confidence in government.
  • Federal agencies are like companies with monopolies on certain services (public goods) where the shareholders (voters) choose a new CEO/COO (President), who in turn selects Senior/Executive Vice Presidents (political appointees) with wildly different management philosophies, experiences and backgrounds on a regular basis. This is a key driver of the Federal Public Service Leader’s behavior and must be better understood, studied, and improved.
  1. What are the leadership competencies, attributes and experiences required to be Federal Public Service Leader?

The unique and vital services Public Service Leaders deliver on behalf of the American taxpayer are heavily influenced by changing dynamics in the workforce, workplace and mission delivery.  For example, the impact that new or emergent technologies (Artificial Intelligence/process robotics automation), workforce management requirements (team-based approaches), and workplace changes (telework, mobility) on Public Service Leaders is enormous yet poorly understood.  Ultimately, these types of changing dynamics will affect how Federal Public Service Leaders will deliver mission results on behalf of the American taxpayer.

Federal Public Service Leaders face unique challenges compared to private sector leaders.  In the private sector, for example, leaders are capable of being agile and nimble when it comes to responding to tectonic changes in how work is accomplished. In addition, private sector leaders are not encumbered by the accretion of decades of regulations, laws and requirements that stifle innovation and promote a culture of risk aversion.

Federal Public Service Leaders, however are influenced and inhibited by three factors, which when combined, discourage risk taking and agile mission accomplishment:

  • A compliance/requirements-based culture that can be impaired by ineffective and outdated rules, regulations and processes that inhibit the agility of leaders.
  • Instabilities in national priority setting due to a dynamic political environment that changes with national elections every four years and the 2-year election cycle of the House of Representatives and one-third of Senators.
  • A broken budget process that results in frequent Continuing Resolutions (CRs) and an inability to do long-term planning.

Next Steps:  To address these broad and system-level changes and influences:

  • It is highly likely that unique competencies will need to be acquired by Public Service Leaders, either mission-specific or more broadly.
  • Future Federal Public Service Leaders must be responsive to the immediate priorities of their chains of command and at the same time maintain a long-term view. This balance is incredibly hard to achieve and will require the development of Federal Public Service Leaders who have increased political savvy and negotiation skills, among other competencies, that here-to-fore have not been emphasized in leadership development programs.
  • The Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) are a sound foundation to begin an examination of the competencies required by Public Service Leaders, but they require updating. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) should lead an effort to examine the ECQs within the context of Public Service Leadership as a Profession to include important factors specific to emergent leadership competencies required to be a successful leader in the Federal government.
  • Many of the competencies essential to a Public Service Leaders are either missing or are underemphasized. The concepts of objectivity and political neutrality should be called out more clearly or added to the general concepts of Integrity/Honesty in the current competency list. Public Service Motivation, Vision, Flexibility and Developing Others are not clearly emphasized in the current ECQs.
  • There could be a need to add a new competency, perhaps called Partnering, which would be more explicit about the need to collaborate on projects and problems that cut across organizational lines. This could lead to a fulfillment of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act’s goal of creating an agile and mobile leadership corps in the Federal government.
  • The generic Financial Management competency could specifically speak to the need to manage public funds and to save taxpayer dollars. An element of Enterprise Risk Management should also be added.
  1. What are the leadership development pathways for a Federal Public Service Leader?

SEA and the IBM Center for the Business of Government are conducting a study of leadership development programs at several agencies to identify “exemplar” agency-based leadership development programs, including at the Air Force, Navy and USDA. In addition, the study will examine the system level constraints that inhibit the creation of exemplar agency based programs.

The study has developed a number of conclusions, including:

  • The best agency-run programs begin leadership development early, typically GS-11.
  • The agency follows a model of leadership that is appropriate within the agency context and development is tailored to meet the needs of the individual at different points in their career.
  • Leadership development is treated as a career long journey instead of the current practice at many agencies of a series of disconnected modules and experiences.
  • Leadership potential is constantly assessed, gaps are identified, and leadership development opportunities are provided to address those gaps.
  • Experiential elements, including rotational assignments and coaching/mentoring, are incorporated into programs to expose to new people, ideas and environments.
  • There is a strong continuing education component for leaders at all levels.
  • Leaders are evaluated by how they develop their future leaders. Mentoring and coaching are intrinsic to the programs.

Next Steps:  The process to develop leadership pathways that produce Public Service Leaders could be improved in the following manner:

  • There should be a hybrid leadership development model that allows for agency-run developmental programs and agency-specific values, but there also needs to be an enterprise element to build a foundation for consistency and portability.
  • The unique values of Public Service Leaders must be clearly reflected in the ECQs (or whatever competency model is developed) and then used as part of the assessment and development of current and future Public Service Leaders.
  • The ECQs or other future state competencies must be situational and tied to different stages of leader development.
  • Assessments are needed at all levels to determine current competencies, potential and developmental needs.
  • The selection process for leaders must be “game free” or reliable, valid, fair, and able to withstand legal scrutiny. There must also be a variety of entry points/pathways.
  • It is important that definitions/vocabulary be clarified and consistent.

 

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