Study Captures Distinctions of Successful Agency Leaders

Retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy
Retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy (Courtesy Of The Cohen Group)
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

There's no shortage of studies on how to make the federal government work better. Many of them provide important information, yet they often plow the same ground and can be as dull as a worn rug.

But one report scheduled for release today caught my eye because it deals not only with practices that work, but also with leaders who fail.

A Harvard researcher, along with the government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, interviewed more than 250 peopleand reviewed agency budgets, congressional testimony and other documents to produce "What it Takes to Change Government" (pdf).

They looked at 11 case studies, eight of leaders who were deemed successful and three of leaders who were not. The failure group wasn't large enough to make a valid comparison with the successes, so the researchers added six others "who were not noted for having tried to make an ambitious change in strategy." I'll call them the mediocre crowd.

The study found the failures spent too much time hobnobbing with other bigwigs and not enough time with people on the shop or office floor. Successful leaders "manage within their organization, not just at the 50,000-foot level," the report says. "Leaders who didn't achieve their goals spent just one-quarter of their time internally."

The researchers would identify only three of the successful former agency leaders they interviewed: the Coast Guard's James M. Loy, the Government Accountability Office's David M. Walker and Charles O. Rossotti of the Internal Revenue Service. Loy told the researchers that he succeeded "because of the thoroughness of the process we went through to listen to everyone and understand what they wanted."

While the study focused on top leaders, its points also apply to "government leaders at all levels, including Senior Executive Service personnel, career staff, congressional staff and White House officials," according to the report.

One major obstacle to an agency's success is interference by political appointees, the study found. They certainly can play a leading role in helping a president create change you can believe in, but too many can stunt rather than energize an institution.

Steven Kelman, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government professor who conducted the study, said it confirmed that "the lower the percentage of political appointees in your agency, the more successful the agency is."

"In six of the eight successful agencies the percentage of political appointees as a percentage of total managers was under the government average," Kelman said in an interview. "And in four of the eight, it was actually less than one-tenth of the government average."

Across government agencies, on average about 1.5 percent of civilian managers are politically appointed, Kelman said. But in three agencies that have been successful in accomplishing a significant change in strategy -- the GAO, IRS and Coast Guard -- politicos make up no more than 0.02 percent of the managers, he said.

The report listed several things that failing leaders generally skipped, but were on the did-do list of successful bosses.

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