Last year's “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings listed the Economic Development Administration dead last in employee satisfaction. Since then the agency, which provides investments to help distressed communities spur economic growth, has taken on new leadership in the form of Jay Williams, the assistant secretary of commerce in charge of the EDA. Williams previously served as the executive director of the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, and was the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio.
Williams spoke about leadership and his efforts to turn around employee morale at the agency with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership. Fox is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, and also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What drew you to public service?
A. It started at a young age, with both my parents and the church. Neither of my parents worked in government, but helping others was the philosophy they had in terms of raising me and my sister.
Q. What lessons have you derived from your leadership roles in government?
A. One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to bring out the best in the people you work with and empower them. The success or failure of many leaders can really boil down to who they surround themselves with.
Q. How would you describe the way you work with people?
A. I use the analogy that if I’m the smartest person in the room, there’s a problem. When I was the mayor, I got to make the powerful decisions — and sometimes it was a privilege and at other times it was a burden. But I didn’t do that without relying on the counsel and perspective of those who were the experts on a particular issue. With respect to the Economic Development Administration (EDA), the vast majority of the career staff have been here a long time and I want to draw on their experience, knowledge and passion.
Q. What are your top goals for the EDA?
A. We are working to improve the internal environment. The EDA has a lot of great people who are passionate about the work that they do, but who are sometimes frustrated with the environment, so that’s a top priority. We also are strengthening our relationship with external stakeholders, whether they be members of Congress, national organizations or other federal agencies. Finally, the philosophy of economic development has evolved in the 50 years we’ve been around. So, we are taking a look at our programs and approaches to make sure they’re relevant.
Q. The 2013 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings listed the EDA last in employee satisfaction among 300 government subcomponents. This survey occurred before you took over the agency. What are you doing to improve morale and change the culture?
A. The environment that we’ve had was almost a perfect storm. We had sequestration, some issues with technology and some leadership changes, combined with the day-to-day pressures. People have indicated to me that they want better communication, an engaged leadership, and they want to feel that their work is appreciated and connected to the larger mission. We are trying to create a situation where people feel empowered and appreciated.
Q. What are the obstacles to innovation in government, and what are you doing to foster that spirit of innovation among your employees?
A. The obstacle often times is just bureaucracy within government itself, and that’s inherent whether it happens at the local, state or federal levels. That can be very inhibiting and sort of drain innovation and creativity. At EDA, we are encouraging people to communicate and share their ideas, and figure out ways to implement those ideas. At times, there’s an assumption that we’ve always done it one way and that an idea just might not get anywhere.
This is a secret that may get me in trouble, but if you put the word “pilot” on something, it buys you some time. You know the attorneys or the overseers of the regulations have to stay on the right side of the issue, but by putting the word “pilot” on it allows the people to be innovative and at the same time doesn’t upset too many people because you can say, “Well you know if it works, we’ll think about further implementation, and if it doesn’t work, it was a pilot and we just wanted to try it.”