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Tiny White House leadership program targets government’s biggest challenges

Listen to Director Jenny Mattingley discuss the White House Leadership Development Program with Federal News Radio's Emily Kopp.

The White House is launching a leadership development program so small the participants could easily fit around a single conference table.  Yet if successful, they could revolutionize the way the government tackles its most complex problems.

The program, which begins in October, will accept just 10 career federal employees. They must already be at the top of the General Schedule as GS-15s or the equivalent. They will spend a year helping the White House and agencies work on the government’s 15 cross-agency priority goals, which, as the name suggests, cut across the entire government.

By focusing their efforts on building governmentwide coalitions around those goals, participants will pick up skills and knowledge they’ll be able to apply when other complex problems crop up and demand immediate attention, said Jenny Mattingley, the program’s director.

“You need stakeholders. You need to understand them. You need to understand different agencies and their cultures. You need a network. And you need some sort of understanding of how to collaborate and bring those pieces together,” she said.

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Meanwhile, the participants may be able to make progress on some of the goals that have stymied agencies, such as improving cybersecurity and customer service. Mattingley expects the participants to split their time time between the White House office focused on their assigned goal and the agencies that are helping the White House lead the effort. That will help them adjust to the different work cultures and build connections, she said.

The Obama administration has made considerable progress on some of those cross-agency priority goals, such as ending homelessness among veterans. Yet it has struggled with others. That’s partly because the senior people involved in the efforts have many other responsibilities, said Ron Sanders, a vice president at fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton, who used to be a federal chief human capital officer. To the extent that the program participants are concentrating on the cross-agency goals full time, they’ll have a better chance of making progress, he said.

Agencies run their own candidate development programs for the same population.  But “I don’t think they prepare people to lead in interagency environment, except by accident,” he said.

Those programs tend to be “finishing schools,” aimed squarely at enabling participants to enter the Senior Executive Service, said Jeff Neal, a former Homeland Security Department chief human capital officer who now works at ICF International.  The programs have had mixed success at achieving their goal, he added.

“This program has the potential to be a better program,” he said. “Participants will get to focus on experience and building a network of contacts in other agencies. They’ll have the benefit of a program that is run out of the [Executive Office of the President] and I don’t think you can underestimate the value of a program run by the White House versus a program run by an agency or a component of a department.”

The program builds on a pledge President Barack Obama made to SES members in December, when he said it would help good ideas “cross-pollinate” across agencies.

There’s a perception that SES members — the most senior of the government’s career professionals — do not have the same broad swath of experience and out-of-box thinking that this program seeks to develop in participants. Some have attributed broad agency failures, such as the General Services Administration’s over-the-top training conference in 2010 or the Veterans Affairs health centers’ inability to promptly treat patients, as a result of insular thinking among the agencies’ career leaders.

“The SES is not what it needs to be in order to deal with these kinds of problems,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. “That pipeline is an important place within the government where it can focus its energy to grow its capability as a whole.”

Stier acknowledged that he would have preferred the White House to create the program earlier in the Obama presidency. But he says it still sends a message that the administration recognizes that it is responsible for the health of the government beyond its term in office.

“We have a government that is besieged and not keeping up with the changes in the world around it,” he said. “If top leaders see this as a priority, it’s a good thing.”

The program does not guarantee participants positions within the SES upon completion. That will depend on vacancies and their own interests, Mattingley said.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, not everyone wants to go into the SES these days,” she said. “The hope is they become very strong, collaborative, enterprise leaders whether they stay as GS-15s or go into the SES.”

Agencies will have to accept the program too, Neal said. It would be considered a success if next year, during the second round of nominations, agencies asked their most promising employees to participate.

“When you have a program like this, there are a couple of different directions it can go with respect to participants. The bad direction is if it’s a program where they think they can put the people they can spare,” he said. “Or it can be a program where you put the people you can’t spare because you know your incredible talented person will come back with better experience and more exposure. They’ll be happier and able to do more things for you.”

Agencies will nominate up to three employees by Aug. 3 for the program. Candidates will go through a rigorous selection process. The 10 participants will be notified by September, Mattingley said.

Read Federal News Radio’s special report, “Fixing the SES.”