Next Four Years: Managing a Balancing Act

How can leaders of Federal programs improve outcomes by capitalizing on approaches and tools developed in the “chiefs” communities (Chief Financial, Information, Acquisition, and Human Capital Officers)?


Twenty years ago, federal agencies typically did not have senior executives leading key mission support functions such as finance, technology, acquisition, or workforce. Over those two decades, Congress created a series of “chief” positions, reflecting trends in the private sector – chief financial officers, chief information technology officers, chief acquisition officers, and chief human capital officers. They recently added performance improvement officers but without the “chief” title.

These various “chiefs” came from different professional disciplines which had their own pre-existing communities. These different communities were reinforced by the creation of cross-agency “chief” councils, such as the Chief Financial Officers Council and the Chief Information Officers’ Council. These councils often spearheaded governmentwide initiatives, such as the CIO Council’s development of an inventory of all data centers, and they shared best practices.

The chiefs generally report to the head of their agencies. They also generally wear three hats:

  • Providing services to internal agency customers (such as hiring or installing computers or providing office space),
  • Ensuring compliance with governmentwide requirements (such as merit principles, or capital investment guidelines), and
  • Providing strategic advice (such as strategic workforce planning or financial risk management).

Depending which hat they wear, they may have different customers or stakeholders. For example, if the chief is wearing a “customer service” hat, their customer may be line managers and employees. If the chief is wearing a “compliance” hat, their customer may be OMB or OPM. And if the chief is wearing an “advisor” hat, their customer may be the agency head. These hats are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the challenge of chiefs is leveraging the differences.

Does the “Chiefs” Function Support Mission Leaders Effectively?

While the roles of chiefs have become clearer, and they have become more organized across agencies, there are problems from the perspective of mission managers in agencies. Mission managers deliver services external to government, such as air traffic control, environmental clean up, statistical surveys for Census, or immigration enforcement at the border. These mission managers both rely on, and are could capitalize more on, mission support functions such as those provided by the chiefs.

For example, a 2009 study by the National Academy of Public Administration of the chiefs functions at the Department of Energy (DOE), Managing at the Speed of Light: Improving Mission-Support Performance, found the mission support functions were seen as dysfunctional by line managers, largely because the various functions did not coordinate with each other. The lack of leadership coordination resulted in “an inwardly focused, regulation-based, transactional organization.”

The study concluded: “DOE needs to better integrate and manage the mission-support offices’ efforts in order to develop a coordinated approach to providing essential support services.” In addition, it found the mission support offices needed to develop a stronger mission focus: “DOE does not have formal systems to assess how well the mission-support offices are meeting the needs of the department and to hold them accountable for doing so.”

But the solution is not to devolve all authorities to mission managers. After all, the study found: “The mission-support organizations provide the grease that makes the department run. Without mission support, work in the program offices will grind to a halt.”

How Can the Chiefs Integrate Their Services to Benefit Mission Leaders?

The NAPA study recommended the department focus on creating cross-bureau governance structures within each agency to coordinate mission-support activities, to include:

  • An undersecretary for management
  • An operations management council
  • A mission-support council

The designation of another chief – chief operating officer (or undersecretary for management) – is a solution favored by the Government Accountability Office. This role has now been enshrined in the new GPRA Modernization Act, so it now has statutory stature, along with the other chiefs.

But new structures and roles alone don’t change tendencies to act independently. Chiefs have to connect with one another through formal and informal means, and balance their “three hat” roles. A November 2011 NAPA forum concluded that this should include efforts to:

  • Ensure transparency to the chiefs’ various stakeholders. The chief operating officer at the Office of Personnel Management, Chuck Grimes, says his agency created a dashboard of key mission support measures, such as “time to hire” or “veterans hiring,” and made the data widely available. He says this helps program managers make better decisions because they have immediate access to useful data.
  • Engage chiefs’ stakeholders in defining what constitutes value to missions. Department of Transportation chief human capital officer Brodi Fontenot says his agency now sponsors an “ideation platform” to engage employees in joint problem solving, much like the Transportation Security Administration’s “Idea Factory.” At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, chief information officer Jerry Williams says the leadership uses regular meetings of top executives to jointly address mission challenges, such as reducing homelessness.
  • Collaborate with other mission support functions as well as with mission delivery executives. One departmental assistant secretary for human resources said he and his mission support peers hold weekly meetings around common initiatives and address strategic questions such as “do we have the right skills sets?” and “will this training lead to changes in mission performance?”

Similarly, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the four councils of chiefs – finance, IT, acquisition, and human capital – came together as the “Quad Council,” which worked with OMB to leverage cross-agency mission support activities that supported a number of e-government initiatives. This model provides an interesting lens to view the issue of collaboration across professional disciplines from a governmentwide perspective as well.

So will steps such as these bridge the perceived gaps between the needs of mission managers and the various mission support chiefs? Probably not at first, given the historical tensions in their respective roles. But recognizing that proactive integration should be an expectation from top agency leadership is key is a good first step.

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For additional blogs and great discussions about the transition, check out:

Transition is An Opportunity – Be Ready

Election and Transition

How Are You Preparing for a Presidential Transition?

Also, check out Dwight Ink and Tom Fox discussing the transition with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER:

Are you ready for the TRANSITION?

Get Past the Partisan Talk — How Career Feds Should Be Prepping for Transition

Memos to National Leaders: Transition Prep, Political Appointees Confirmations and More

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John Kamensky

The role of a COO (such as deputy secretaries in many departments) or CMO (Chief Management Officer such as in DOD) or Undersecretary for Management (such as in DHS) can be the same, or different, depending on the department or agency. The GPRA Modernization Act (and recent OMB guidance in A-11) says the COO will be the deputy agency head “or equivalent.” So the key is, who is given the COO responsibilities. There is a list of COO responsibilities in the law/OMB guidance.

In an agency with a strong statutory Undersecretary for Management, and a deputy secretary involved with policy, then the division becomes clear. But typically, the deputy secretary takes the role of COO, and the White House Personnel Office tries to find someone with the right skills and temperament for the job.