John D. Donahue of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Max Stier CEO of the Partnership for Public Service have a good piece in the Washington Monthly on rebuilding federal agency capacity. Their to do list:

Appoint managers. Not cronies. Not ideological soul mates. Not campaign stalwarts. Not even inspiring symbols, or soaring intellects, or wise old men and women. Nice if you can get those attributes as part of the package, of course. But the taste and talent for actually getting things done has to be the central criterion for senior hires…

Hold leaders accountable for managing well. Political appointees can’t be expected to treat management and workforce issues as top priorities unless they are convinced these are the president’s priorities. Obama has to signal clearly, early, and often to his political appointees that making long-term improvements to basic government operations is a central part of their jobs. Once they see that their peers really are celebrated for managing well, and sanctioned or replaced for letting management slide, they’ll get with the program—most of them quite happily. The president should appoint one of his most trusted and talented and relentless supporters to head the Office of Personnel Management, to provide day-to-day reinforcement for this mandate…

Fix the workforce. The president can’t succeed without top-flight managers, but even the best managers can’t win without reversing the decay in the federal workforce. Obama needs to review the long list of sensible reform ideas that previous administrations considered but lacked the will, nerve, or political capital to enact. Then he needs to decide which ones he’s willing to fight for, and push hard to make them happen within the first year, early enough for the reforms to do his administration some good. Our favorites include: lowering hurdles to lateral entry so that experienced workers (including mid-career baby boomers hungry for work with meaning) can serve a stint in Washington; making compensation more market sensitive and performance based; getting smarter about sorting out federal tasks between employees and contractors; and creating an ROTC equivalent for the civil service…

Focus on performance. Since it’s hard to improve what you can’t measure, creating reliable and action-oriented performance metrics is key to making Washington work better. The Clinton and Bush administrations each made some efforts at performance management, but the new team needs to push this much harder. And brace for criticism, some of it likely to be deserved. There are plenty of stupid ways to measure and motivate performance. Indeed, just about every dumb idea—murky goals nobody can measure, crisp metrics that miss what’s valuable, sloppy or abusive systems that invite game playing, too much focus on material rewards and penalties—has been tried by some government somewhere. But that’s actually good news for Obama. We’re starting to get a decent sense of the best way to shape and apply metrics. Performance management is mature enough for a smart administration, committed to creating value for the citizenry, to actually implement.

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