Lately it seems as if every month brings a new, startling failure in the performance of the federal government. The political cost to the Obama Administration has been high and the reputational cost to the federal government has been even higher. In searching for causes, leadership comes immediately to mind. As John Hudak points out in a new paper for the Center for Effective Public Management, there are about 4,000 political leadership positions in the U.S. federal government and these jobs are critical to the functioning of the federal government. They are “surrogates of the president” and “dynamic players within the executive branch, serving dual roles as both political actors and administrative professionals.”
When these positions go unfilled for long periods of time, as they have in recent years, the government runs on autopilot; the ability to anticipate problems or to take action to avoid problems is seriously hampered. According to Hudak, “when vacancies occur, they affect not just the political interests of the president, but the administrative capacity of agencies.” Despite the importance of these leadership posts, the federal government is seriously hobbled in its ability to perform the simplest of tasks—tracking vacancies. As Hudak points out, “The government does not lack personnel data tracking systems. Instead, it lacks a comprehensive, systematic one that is effective at tracking and evaluating vacancies.”
Hudak makes a major contribution to our understanding of this critical problem by reviewing the federal government’s systems in place for tracking vacancies and making suggestions for improvement. His most jarring finding is that no one really knows how many vacancies there are in the federal government. To remedy that, Hudak’s first recommendation is creation of a comprehensive audit of employees. His second is to reform the Executive and Schedule C System (ESCS) to track, not only data on individuals, but data on the positions themselves. He also proposes establishing standards for position tracking, developing mandatory reporting requirements, and linking appointee tracking with performance data. Finally, Hudak points out that these reforms are necessary before other reforms, such as converting political positions to career positions or removing positions from the need for Senate confirmation, can be completed.
Fixing the performance issues of the federal government must begin with the leadership issues. Here at Governance Studies we have promoted reforms to many aspects of the system including the Senate confirmation system. Hudak’s paper provides solid steps the government can take towards building a workable personnel database without which the problem cannot be analyzed or fixed.
I thought the analysis [in the National Defense Strategy] was good and the general main message, that we are in a great power competition, I thought exactly right… At critical moments [President Trump] will need to make the decision ... to actually uphold this world view.