T he president's chief adviser on federal management and workforce policies, Clay Johnson III, serves up the question and the answer:
"Do we have as many good managers as we need? The answer is no."
Improving the quality of federal management will be a "particularly high priority" of the Bush administration in coming months, Johnson said, in part because many agencies will face tight budgets in fiscal 2006.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address, said his new budget will propose to hold the increase in discretionary spending below inflation and will target more than 150 programs for sharp cuts or elimination because they "are not getting results or duplicate current efforts or do not fulfill essential priorities."
The budget, to be released tomorrow, will be focused more than ever on the results being achieved by programs, primarily because the Office of Management and Budget has more data on program performance than in past years, Johnson said in an interview.
"The key is what are we getting done, not how much money we spend," said Johnson, the OMB deputy director for management.
Regardless of whether a program is doubling in size or facing elimination, "holding managers accountable is very, very important," he said.
That's a tall order, and, based on past efforts, the federal workforce probably will greet it with skepticism.
A survey of federal employees in 2000 by the Merit Systems Protection Board found that only 47 percent believed that their supervisor had good management skills. A 2002 survey by the Office of Personnel Management showed that only 43 percent of federal employees agreed with the statement, "I hold my organization's leaders in high regard."
In general, many federal employees think that their bosses do a poor job of holding employees accountable for their performance and conduct, much less themselves. For example, a survey last year by the inspector general at the Interior Department found that 64 percent of supervisors admitted that they had not taken disciplinary action when warranted.
Johnson said agencies need to determine how many managers they need, what kind of training is appropriate for managers and employees and whether some jobs should be filled with managers from outside.
Agencies also need to find ways to work smarter, make better use of technology and create "a results mind-set" that motivates employees to improve their job performance each year, he said.
"We need to get really good at managing people. Because they are not bureaucrats, and because they are capable of much more than they are producing," Johnson said. "If we are going to expect more of programs every year, that means we have to get smarter to achieve desired outcomes every year, which means that employees have to get more efficient and effective every year."
That's another tall order. Congress does not always consider how well a program is performing when making decisions on funding and sometimes undercuts managers by stepping in to micromanage programs.
Many federal employees also regularly point out that training funds are among the first to be cut in tough budget years, and Johnson readily acknowledges that training is at risk in tight budgets. Some agencies, meanwhile, have struggled with contract management and large computer projects, drawing criticism that they are wasting money.
Trusting employees and obtaining their feedback will help agencies solve problems, Johnson said. Long-term improvement also hinges on getting managers to set expectations and then hold their staffs accountable for meeting those expectations, he said. "This is the biggest impact, and that doesn't involve money per se."
New pay and personnel rules at the departments of Homeland Security and Defense -- covering about half of the federal workforce -- will "help establish a performance culture," Johnson said. "They help establish accountability. They help recognize individual differences."
The trick, of course, is to handle pay and performance issues in a way that employees think is fair and credible. And that, too, is a tall order.