Exclusive Commentary

Help the Poor by Revitalizing the Federal Workforce, By Max Stier, President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service

- A Holiday Appeal to Improve How Government Assists Those in Need


Nearly two-thirds of Americans report being “hurt” by the recession, but for the millions who live in poverty, the economic downturn has them not just feeling pain, but facing peril.

The primary safety net for those in poverty is our federal government, which provides many of them cash assistance, medical care, food stamps and housing. There is currently talk of an $800 billion stimulus package to spur an economic recovery, which is likely to include an extension of unemployment benefits and an increased investment in food stamps and Medicaid.

But delivering more money and services will not be enough. To maximize the help provided to America’s least fortunate citizens, our government must have a deeply engaged and quality federal workforce to deliver those services more effectively.

The plain truth is that every single policy of President-elect Barack Obama’s new administration, from the financial bailout of Wall Street to providing housing and low-income energy assistance to the poor, will be influenced by the people who have to execute those initiatives.

Our federal leaders have tended to emphasize policy to the exclusion of operations, and this has often been a recipe for failure. Good government and effective policies start with good people and good leaders. Today, we have a serious talent and leadership gap in our federal civil service.

Take the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shaun Donovan, Obama’s choice to be HUD secretary, will be at the center of efforts to solve a housing crisis that has dragged the nation into recession. One in 10 home loans is past due on payment or in foreclosure. There will be increased demand for public housing, Section 8 rental assistance for the poor and a growing homeless population.

At this perilous time, Donovan inherits a department that might best be described as rusted. It has the oldest workforce in government, with 26 percent of its employees set to retire by 2012, and many dysfunctional components.

HUD ranked 23 out of 30 large agencies in the 2007 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, a sign of the department’s internal problems. Employees gave HUD low marks for effective leadership, strategic management and matching the right talent to the right jobs.

That was true for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which ranked 186th of 222 units within various government agencies and departments in the Best Places survey. Medicaid is the health insurance program for the poor, and Medicare provides health coverage for the elderly and disabled. The Partnership’s federal worker survey also gave low rankings for leadership and management to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which handles food stamps and the school lunch programs for low-income children.

Study after study has shown that leadership is the most critical factor in determining employee engagement and organizational effectiveness. However, leadership consistently ranks near the bottom in the list of 10 different workplace categories in the Best Places government rankings.

Among the challenges facing Donovan at HUD and his colleagues in the new administration will be the lack of managerial skills among some senior leaders and the need to expand the government’s career talent pool to fill critical jobs.

Donovan knows the inner workings of HUD, which should give him a leg up in pinpointing areas that need to be strengthened and finding ways to revitalize the career workforce. And Obama seems aware that more is required than just smart policies and additional funding.

“We can't keep throwing money at the problem, hoping for a different result,” Obama said during his radio address this month announcing Donovan’s appointment. “We need to approach the old challenge of affordable housing with new energy, new ideas, and a new, efficient style of leadership.”

At HUD and at many agencies dealing with assistance to the poor, the Obama team will have to make some major changes in today’s badly broken federal systems for recruiting, hiring, compensating, and training workers if they want to attract the best and the brightest to public service and give the people the government they need and deserve.

If Obama’s call for a new style of leadership and his earlier pledge to create “a more competent government” are to become reality, he must:

· Send an unequivocal message to his political appointees and senior career managers at every federal department and agency that hiring and retaining quality people is a top priority—that it is not just a personnel issue but a leadership issue and a central part of their jobs.

· Fix the government’s broken hiring process that is inflexible, confusing, time-consuming, and has difficulty matching the right talent with the appropriate jobs.

· Open up civil service positions traditionally closed to the public to attract experienced and talented mid-career professionals to fill high-skill jobs.

· Seek enactment of expanded loan-repayment programs, “fellowships” for certain jobs, and an ROTC-like program in which students would get educational benefits in return for a commitment to join the government after graduation.

· Invest in the current workforce with leadership, training and development programs for managers and supervisors—sending a message that the administration wants world-class employees operating in a world-class work environment.

· Make sure the political appointees engage career civil servants and their union representatives on ways to improve government performance and effectiveness.

The evidence is readily apparent that the recession is hitting low-income people very hard, and this will mean increased demands on the federal government to assist the poor. We are already seeing more people apply for unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps and housing assistance—not the ingredients for a happy holiday season or a new year.

The foundations, the nonprofit sector and the states can play important roles in dealing with poverty, but the federal government by far is the biggest and most important player on the block. If we care about alleviating poverty, we not only have to care just about getting the policies right but about the improving the quality of the federal workforce that must deliver the services to the American people.

Max Stier is President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.