The Obama administration has set its sights on more than a dozen national priorities, such as cybersecurity and energy efficiency, that cut across federal agency missions.
But the government lacks a dedicated team of senior executives willing to break out of the agency mold to implement those goals, according to a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.
The report recommends creating a new team of Senior Executive Service (SES) members — a cadre of free agents not tied a particular agency — who would work on cross-agency priorities.
“The Executive Branch needs more SES executives who can address and resolve whole- of-government problems and priorities beyond their home agency missions,” the report concluded.
The author of the report, Bruce Barkley, told In Depth with Francis Rose SES members have the skills to collaborate but lack a support system for doing so.
“Part of the issue is the allegiance to an agency and to a … narrow mission in the agency itself,” said Barkley, a retired federal executive who now teaches at the Keller Graduate School of Management in Atlanta, Ga. “In other words, I think you have to … broaden the perspective of the SES people, so they’re free enough to use those talents to address national priorities.”
But the ambitious agenda of goals doesn’t line up all that well with agency’s outlined mission areas, Barkley said. And there’s a dearth of people tasked with implementing those goals, he said.
“Right now, all of the mandates from the Government Performance and Results Act and the OMB cross-agency priorities are, really, unstaffed,” Barkley said. “And the goal leaders have to beg, borrow and steal execs whose allegiance is generally to the agency.”
The new breed of SES Barkley envisions is not far removed from the highly mobile executive corps Congress intended when it created the SES in 1978.
But, in practice, it’s become rare for SES members to rotate through agencies.
A 2012 report from the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company found only 8 percent of SES members had changed agencies throughout their careers and nearly half had never even changed positions.
“It really is difficult to move from one agency to another in the Senior Executive Service,” Barkley said. “Generally, agencies don’t like to lose people — particularly good people.”
SES members also face an “agency-centric process” that prioritizes the work of their particular agencies above governmentwide goals, Barkley said.
“In general, we have an awful lot of good people who are bound, I think, by narrow goals and objectives and really can’t free themselves to help out on broad federal issues,” he said.
Barkley’s report also recommended setting up an office to coordinate the new group of senior execs. The logical place for such an office would be either within OMB or the President’s Management Council, Barkley said.
“At some point, you have to elevate a sort of central home room, if you will, for these senior execs, that is outside of their current agency context and yet related to the performance of the agencies, themselves,” Barkley said.