Earlier this week, President Obama used his annual State of Union address to ask Congress for “the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our government is leaner, quicker and more responsive to the needs of the American people.”
This was in part a reference to a recent proposal unveiled by Obama to merge six agencies into a new department that would encompass the business and trade functions of the Commerce Department, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade and Development Agency. The plan also called for moving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department.
I don’t think anyone can dispute that the structures and functions of many federal agencies would benefit from reform. And reducing inefficiencies, maximizing the return on taxpayer dollars and increasing American competitiveness as suggested by the trade merger are certainly laudable goals.
But transforming government agencies is hard, frequently disruptive, consumes enormous energy, diverts attention from other priorities and requires far more than simply shifting the boxes on organizational charts. When our government succeeds or fails, it’s typically more about the quality of the people – and the performance, commitment and management skills of senior leaders – than it is about organizational structures.
It will be important for senior leaders at agencies that might be affected by the proposed changes to concentrate on doing their jobs while the potentially contentious political process takes care of itself and consensus is reached on the scope of a reorganization. But it is also important for leaders to let their employees know what is happening – or not happening – and how any proposed changes may affect them. Here are some suggestions:
Do not panic. Remember the old commercial tagline, “Never let them see you sweat.” That advice is true for federal leaders at the agencies that could be affected by the proposed changes. Employees take their cues from their leaders. They’ll be focused on their jobs if you are.
Keep your head up, not in the sand. Of course, keeping calm does not mean keeping quiet. Employees follow the news. It’s your job to share the relevant facts and let them know that it’s one of your roles to keep them updated on details as they emerge.
Establish rumor central. As congressional discussions heat up, rumor mills and water-cooler talk will be the order of the day. As a result, top leaders should proactively solicit questions from career federal employees, and use all-hands meetings, weekly emails or a Frequently Asked Questions section on your Intranet to tackle the tough issues or allay fears. While internal communications or public affairs staff can help craft an effective response, senior leaders must make sure the message is forthright and accurate.
If the time comes for a reorganization, go local as well as global. If a reorganization is eventually approved, it may be tempting for the agency to simply send a broadcast message out to the entire workforce and leave it at that. The message’s consistency across the workforce is necessary, but not sufficient. The agency head and other senior leaders need to visit with employees to inform them about any next steps and the likely impact of any actual reorganization plan. First-line supervisors also need to be informed and constructively engaged with their employees. If there is the opportunity to ask line employees for their ideas and input on how best to implement a reorganization, that can be very helpful. All of this will take time, but there’s no substitute for the direct contact.
Now that the dialogue has begun, let’s continue it. For anyone having been through the starts and stops of previous reorganizations, I would love to share your advice with those nervous about what lies ahead. Please provide your experiences or ideas by commenting below or by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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