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The Federal Coach
Posted at 02:23 PM ET, 03/21/2011

Waiting for the federal budget: What agency leaders can do during planning purgatory

Although we have yet again avoided a government shutdown for at least three more weeks with the passage of the latest short-term appropriations bill for fiscal 2011, the operating conditions created by the continual funding uncertainties are taking a toll on federal agencies.

 As a federal leader, you’re already doing more with less. Perhaps you have delayed hiring for critical vacancies, curtailed training, put off signing new contracts, swallowed hard as your customer service has slipped or held back on moving forward with information technology upgrades or other needed investments.

 It’s hard to engage in sound planning or make rational program, policy and management decisions when you have no idea how much money will be available for the remainder of the fiscal year.

 The end result is that you may be postponing expenditures that eventually will have to be made, and perhaps at a higher cost. This is one of the inefficiencies that have been forced on you by the stalemate between the White House and Congress.

 And then there’s the cost to the American public. The Department of Defense says it is short of money for operations, maintenance and training that threaten military readiness. The Internal Revenue Service has delayed upgrades to electronic data systems designed to bring in extra revenue and speed taxpayer refunds. The Social Security Administration has delayed opening eight new offices to tackle its backlog of appeals for people seeking disability benefits.

It’s hard to find leadership lessons to be derived from the inefficient, start-and-stop management conditions created by Congress, but I’m an optimist. As managers, your job is to plan and manage even under difficult circumstances not of your own making. So, while hardly satisfactory, I suggest that you:

 · Look closely at the different funding scenarios that may occur. As tempting as it is to throw your hands up and do nothing as the political drama unfolds,  my advice is don’t just sit there in limbo, because the result will be more work for you and your team in the end. Examine all of the various options for each funding level and then develop a plan for each option. This is more work for you, but you’ll be ready to move quickly once you know which scenario is the real one.

 · Confront the facts, don’t avoid them. It may be hard to grasp that programs you believe are important are going to be eliminated, curtailed or simply rendered less effective. Make sure that your team understands what is happening and why. Start by asking yourself and your team members about the worse-case situations and how as a team you might best deal with each.

 · Spend time connecting with your stakeholders. Clearly inform your constituencies about all of the uncertainties, the possible options and what you are planning so they will be prepared for events as they unfold. The decisions you make or are forced to make will have a big impact on others, and they need to know what may lie ahead.

 · Be ready to communicate. When the funding issues are finally resolved and you have made some tough decisions, be ready to communicate the bottom line internally and externally. Expect some fallout and lots of unhappiness. There may be little you can say to ease the pain, but everyone from your staff to the stakeholders needs to understand the choices that have been made and why they have been undertaken.

 · Remain as upbeat as possible and focus on getting the job done. It doesn’t help and often makes matters worse when an employee’s supervisor or leader is negative, pessimistic or simply whining about the hand the organization has been dealt. It’s up to you to set a positive tone and to focus on the bottom-line–serving the American public by doing the best job possible even under difficult circumstances.

While all of these suggestions are directed at making the best of a bad situation, you really have little choice in these difficult times. Please let me know if you have any suggestions, or if there are leaders in your agency you believe are doing an outstanding job of leading through the uncertainty. Please share your stories by commenting below or by contacting me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

 And check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Kumar Kibble, deputy director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

By  |  02:23 PM ET, 03/21/2011

 
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