In May, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker launched the Volcker Alliance, in part to rebuild trust in government. Tom Fox spoke with Shelley Metzenbaum, a former Office of Management and Budget leader and the founding president of the Volcker Alliance, about the organization’s goals and the management challenges facing our government. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.
What motivated you to pursue a career in public service?
My parents and others instilled in me the belief that it’s important to leave the world better than you found it. Growing up in the 1960s, I remember being upset about so much discrimination and poverty in America. It was wrong and needed to be fixed, and I saw that government could make a difference. Government gives an opportunity to make the world a better place — that’s what got me into public service.
What are your top goals for the Volcker Alliance?
We’re focusing on effective execution of public policy and rebuilding public trust in government. We plan to work as a catalyst for change, in alliance with educational institutions, government, business and nonprofit groups. Also, we want to increase attention to the nuts and bolts of government. Debate about smarter policies gets attention from the best minds, and government problems get everyone’s attention. We want the best minds also giving serious attention to the challenge of implementing policies and to enabling people to be great government implementers.
What steps can federal leaders take to rebuild public trust in government?
That’s an important question we want to answer. One way is to help the public understand what government is trying to accomplish, why, strategies being used, progress being made, and problems encountered. We also need to learn how to break this information down into digestible pieces. Take clean air, for example. When you compare pictures of the air quality in Beijing to air quality in major U.S. cities, the difference is incredible. Does that build your trust in government and its ability to make a difference in people’s lives? It should.
What do you believe are the top management challenges facing our federal government?
Obviously, getting managers across all levels of federal agencies to embrace the use of goals and measurement as power tools to improve is a top management challenge. Another challenge is building government employees’ skills, especially as technology and the world change and as new expectations are placed on government agencies. Even the best doctors take continuing-education courses to keep up with new knowledge, technologies and techniques. If they don’t, I don’t want to go to that doctor. We need to do more of that in the government, even and especially in tight-budget times.
Also, we need to create a culture of tolerance for mistakes, errors and trials that don’t work. If you think about our greatest discoveries, none succeeded the first time. But in the public sector, we spotlight things that go wrong. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking any risks. And if you’re not taking any risks, you’re not going to achieve significant advances.
In your experience, what are some key traits that lead to long-term success for government leaders?
The best leaders focus on things that matter in people’s lives and articulate that focus clearly so members of their team and people outside their organization understand what they’re trying to accomplish.
Strong leaders make sure people in their organization understand how what they do connects with what others do and with the organization’s objective so everyone can figure out how to contribute.
The second trait I see in effective leaders is an appreciation for the importance of interaction. No leader gets everything done on his or her own, and few organizations succeed in isolation of other organizations.
The best leaders work with people within their own organization and beyond it: top to bottom, bottom to top, side to side, inside and out. They share information and insights, listen to what others have to say, and share what they learn so others can use it. A third key trait is tenacity — sticking with it. What you try the first time is never likely to be perfect. Sometimes, it won’t work. Almost all the time, it can be improved. Leaders help their team stick with it, learn and keep trying to get it better.
How would you describe to the American public why the work of the federal employees is so important?
The federal government and the people working for it help keep our roads, waterways and drinking water safe. They help the private sector thrive, young people go to college and senior citizens maintain a higher quality of life. That is just a few of the ways the federal government makes a difference.
I sometimes wish we had a brand we could put on all the things around us — “brought to you, in part, by government.”
I think people would be astounded by how much government improves the quality of their lives. That is not to say there isn’t plenty of room to improve. Serious implementation problems do exist, some of which the Volcker Alliance will try to tackle. But we should also take time to recognize, celebrate and learn from the successes.