Tips for how fed leaders can avoid messes like healthcare.gov

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Government works quite well most of the time, but, as federal executives know, efforts to implement federal policies can sometimes encounter obstacles and get off track. Witness the recent rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

While every program has its own unique challenges and requirements, there are some basic tenets government leaders can follow to help increase the chances of success when managing a federal program.

Declare your purpose and define responsibilities. Start by taking the time to develop a charter outlining your team’s purpose, goals and time frame. Be clear about who’s ultimately accountable for calling the shots, who will be responsible for performing the work, who needs to be consulted along the way and who just needs to be kept informed. A team will be more productive and responsive when the leader takes great pains to set the right tone and spell out everyone’s roles and responsibility.

Get the right people. Pay close attention to gathering the right mix of competencies among your team members that will get the job done. Simply having people with good intentions who are willing to work hard is not enough. They have to be capable of doing the work. Start with a good analysis of what skills are needed and how many people will be required.

Encourage collaboration. Establish methods for timely information sharing and collaboration. You cannot simply throw a group of people together and assume they will naturally emerge as a team. You may get lucky and find that they do, but you’re more likely to find people focusing on the things they do well versus the big picture or behaving like toddlers on the soccer field, as I call it. This is where everyone runs after the ball in a pack, leading to inefficiency and missed opportunities. To get the most from a team, establish clear expectations and methods for working together. How will we communicate? How will we solve problems and manage conflict? How will we ultimately make decisions? Set the boundaries early, and you will find the team is capable of tackling any problem quickly and with little incident.

Don’t hide the bad news. If you’re worried your team may be painting an overly rosy picture of their progress, regularly call meetings focused on surfacing and solving problems. Once employees know you’re not interested in placing blame, they will be all the more likely to surface problems on a daily basis.

Keep your eye on the results. Finally, don’t forget to focus very clearly on the outcomes you need to achieve and the ultimate customers you need to serve rather than on the process itself or simply the interim deliverables. It's especially useful to find ways to involve major stakeholders and to build feedback loops into the process at critical junctures. This can greatly decrease the odds of heading in the wrong direction. In short, constantly determine that what you are doing is effective and useful.

Please share your experiences managing a federal program or implementing government policies in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.

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