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The Three Hats of Mission-Support Leaders

How do you assess the effectiveness and impact of mission support functions — human resources, acquisitions, finance, technology, etc. — on an agency’s mission? That was the question posed to a roundtable of experts at the National Academy of Public Administration yesterday.

And the question was raised none too soon – President Obama that morning issued an executive order, “Promoting Efficient Spending,” directing more cuts in administrative costs, on top of the $2.1 billion already ordered, according to Government Executive.

The lead article in the current Government Executive magazine, by Joe Marks – “A Thousand Cuts” – describes in vivid detail how the Obama Administration has taken on cuts in administrative costs and concludes that this will not reduce the deficit, but that if done right, these cuts could make a difference by making “government function better, faster, cheaper, and more transparently.”

Focusing on the efficiency and costs of administrative, or mission support, services is the traditional approach when viewing their value. But the NAPA panel took a different look. How do you assess their effectiveness and impact?

This isn’t an academic issue.

It is seen as easy to target cuts to “administrative costs” such as the mythical “$16 muffin” and conferences, training, travel, etc. And it seems cost-free to target functions not seen as essential – workforce planning, financial management, contract officers, real estate managers, supply offices, etc. . . . especially when these offices are seen as unresponsive to mission and program offices. After all, they are “overhead,” and are run by central control freaks who focus on compliance and rules. . . . . At least that was the charge leveled in the 1990s by mission managers, and maybe more currently as well.

But not doing these functions right has a cost. Just look at the final report of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which found at least $31 billion in waste and fraud because of the lack of adequately trained contract officers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or look at the $641 million in grievance settlements at the Postal Service this past year, largely because of poor management training and inadequate labor-management relations management.

So there is a value to these functions, and they do affect the mission of individual agencies. In fact, one of the roundtable panelists, former Department of Homeland Security executive Jeffrey Neal, said “there is no real difference between mission and mission support.” His analogy was owning a fancy sports car . . . but without gas and oil, it won’t work.

He, and other panelists, say we need to reframe the debate. But to do this means defining a clear conceptual frame of reference.

Wearing Three Hats

One roundtable participant, corporate CEO Tim Barnhart, sharpened the conversation when he observed that the executives leading mission support functions wear three different hats, and that these hats are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their challenge is reconciling the differences.

These executives are seen as responsible not only for providing a service function (such as hiring or installing computers or providing office space), but also are responsible for ensuring compliance with governmentwide requirements (such as merit principles, or capital investment guidelines), and they are increasingly being expected to provide their agency leadership with strategic advice (such as strategic workforce planning or financial risk management).

Depending which hat you wear, you may have different customers or stakeholders. For example, if you are wearing your “compliance” hat, your customer may be OMB or OPM. If you are wearing your “customer service” hat, your customer may be line managers and employees. And with your “advisor” hat, your customer may be the agency head.

So assessing the value of mission support functions takes on different dimensions.

Assessing Value

Roundtable participants offered several different approaches to assessing the value of mission support functions.

Former federal executive Shirl Nelson suggested the questions used by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit might be a good starting point:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you trying to do it?
  • How do you know if you are succeeding?
  • If you’re not succeeding, how will you try to change things?

Another suggestion stemmed from a NAPA assessment of mission support functions it conducted at the Department of Energy in 2009:

  • Do they have strategic vision?
  • Do they have leadership?
  • Do they exhibit a mission and customer service orientation?
  • How well do they do tactical implementation?
  • Do they exhibit the ability to be agile and adaptable?

A third set of elements evolved during the course of the panel conversation:

Ensure transparency to your stakeholders. OPM’s chief operating officer, 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 managers make better decisions because they have immediate access to useful data.

Engage your stakeholders in defining value. Department of Transportation chief human capital officer Brodi Fontenot says his agency now sponsors an “ideation platform” to engage employees in joint problemsolving, 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. Department of Veteran Affairs assistant secretary John Sepulveda says 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?”

While the roundtable may not have ended with a definite answer to the question of how to demonstrate the impact of mission support functions on mission delivery, it did spark a continuing conversation that will help inform decision makers, especially as they cope with the day-to-day demands for more budget cuts.

Graphic Credit: Gutenberg.org

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