6 Lessons From 2020 Federal Leaders Should Apply in the Months to Come

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As the embers of the dumpster fire that was 2020 burn away, important lessons provide light for the way forward in 2021.

I haven’t talked with anyone pining for the good old days of 2020. But as we collectively stagger into 2021, it’s worth remembering six morals from the outgoing year that we’ll want to follow in the months to come.

1. The debate about telework is over. There was a time—actually, a year ago—when some managers looked skeptically at telework. The EPA, for example, found itself in the middle of a squabble when top officials tried to limit the telework time of their employees, and Social Security had actually decided to end its telework program. 

That’s so 2019 now. As the Government Accountability Office has found, there are important lessons we’ve learned from 2020’s grand experiment in telework. Many employees are anxious to get back to the office to get a view beyond their couches and have in-person conversations with other humans, but there’s no going back to the pre-COVID days. Telework is here to stay. It can benefit employees and citizens alike. And the benefits are likely to stick.

2. The federal hiring process has improved . . . a little. The Office of Personnel Management has told us that the time to hire new employees improved from 105.8 days in 2017 to 98.3 days in 2018. That’s not good, by a long shot, and it falls well short of the government’s goal of 80 days, which itself is twice as long as in the private sector

However, the recruitment process is at least getting better, and Performance.gov has compiled useful agency-by-agency data about the progress being made. There are lots of pieces of the government’s human capital system that need work. Hiring might be the bit most in need of repair. But there’s progress here to build on.

3. The U.S. Digital Service has demonstrated problem solving strategies that go far beyond the digital world. USDS might well be the most interesting outpost of the federal government that most people have never heard of. An agency that spun out of the rapid-reaction effort to repair the Affordable Care Act website in 2013, it’s taken on an expanding portfolio of projects. From improving the system for helping vets upgrade their discharge status to developing strategies for keeping schools safe, it has a remarkable portfolio of accomplishments.

A major project is modernizing Medicare’s payment system, which runs on eight million lines of COBOL code—a programming language invented in 1959 that almost no one learns these days—on 15 different mainframe computers—a device that today’s students have never seen. USDS has helped the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reduce the time to develop new code from four weeks to just a few days. USDS has developed rapid problem solving strategies that have evolved from data systems into the mainstream of government problem solving. This paves the road to broader, faster reforms for the future.

4. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 website has been a breakthrough in using data to drive policy. One of the biggest problems tackling the pandemic has been the staggering complexity in tracking it. Everyone, from federal policymakers to reporters, has come to depend on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, a blessing that sprang from nothing into a global force in just weeks. It has been a national embarrassment that the Hopkins team, led by Beth Blauer, had to do what the federal government should have done. “Covid-19 data is a mess,” she wrote in an op-ed with her colleague, Jennifer Nuzzo. But, at least, the Hopkins team did what needed to be done.

There’s a larger lesson here, of a data team from a major nonprofit institution that partnered with government officials to collect data—and, even more important—to make sense of it. Without the team’s focus on how the virus has affected different residents of different communities, especially the impact of the virus on persons of color, we might never have discovered some of the most important elements of this awful scourge. Good data can drive better policy, and the Hopkins COVID-19 website, along with the multi-sector team behind it, has shown us how.

5. OMB has forged an important EX-CX connection. In news-you-might-have-missed, a team at the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration worked with agency managers at the Transportation Security Administration and the Veterans Health Administration to explore links between the federal government’s effort to improve employee engagement (EX) and its strategies to improve the customer experience (CX). They analyzed millions of data points and boiled the results down to just a couple of easy-to-read charts. The findings: more engaged employees produce a better experience for citizens. 

But perhaps even more important is their ability to demonstrate how these results vary from location to location within the same agency. For example, complaints are relatively few at TSA’s massive operation at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and employees are relatively engaged. Just 30 miles away at Midway Airport, however, complaints are much higher and engagement is much lower. We’re used to comparing employee engagement numbers across agencies, so we know that NASA is a better place to work than TSA. That might not help agencies much, however, since TSA’s director can’t turn the job of airport screening into one of launching rockets. The new administrators coming into these agencies, however, can use these tools to discover which of their operations have the highest employee engagement and most satisfied customers. They can learn to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

New Biden appointees ought to race to get their hands on the data for their agencies to help them do the jobs they are coming to town to accomplish. And that in turn can help improve overall trust in government, since surveys suggest that the customer experience can explain 67% of the trust in government.

6. Schedule F has framed an important debate from which we cannot walk away. Like nothing in recent memory, the Trump administration’s executive order to create a new schedule that would transform thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?—it’s not yet clear) of federal workers into at-will employees, subject to being fired, has fueled a furious debate. Good government groups have called on President-elect Biden to wipe out Schedule F. Critics of the civil service are campaigning to make it easier to fire feds to improve accountability.

No matter what Biden does with the executive order on taking office, there’s no way to put this toothpaste back into the tube. On the right, the campaign to remove merit system protections is not going to leave town when President Trump does. On the left, there’s no escaping the fact that the civil service is in serious trouble. 

We badly need to sort this out. It’s tempting to ask for yet another blue-ribbon commission to study the problem, but we have great recent work from the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration and the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to show the way. We don’t need more studies. We need strong leadership to create a public service that works for the 21st century. Schedule F might well have provided the spark needed, on all sides, to move from studies to action. It’s certainly made clear that the status quo is a no-man’s-land that benefits no one.

So, as we allow the embers of the dumpster fire that was 2020 to burn away, it’s worth remembering that there are some hyper-important lessons that have emerged—and that will provide light for steps forward in 2021. Happy New Year!

Donald F. Kettl is Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, located at the LBJ Washington Center. 

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