Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The New Job of the Federal Executive

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The New Job of the Federal Executive

Article excerpt

In March 1993, President Clinton asked me to lead a review of the performance of the federal government. I enlisted the support of a core of very capable career federal employees to help craft a vision of what the federal government should be like. I presented this report to the President in September 1993 (Gore, 1993). With his hearty endorsement of the report, I have been working vigorously to implement its recommendations to create a government that works better and costs less.

A key finding in that report was that only 20 percent of the American people trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Thirty years ago, 76 percent trusted the government. Reducing this 'trust deficit" is an important initiative of the Clinton/Gore administration (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 1993). But this is possibly an even more important issue for career public servants - and their leaders - who face the public on a day-to-day basis.

Overcoming the trust deficit is an important impetus as to why the job of the federal executive must change. But it is only part of the reason. During the past few years, there have been significant changes in what the federal executive does and how he or she does it. The report I presented to the President last September will accelerate these changes. I would like to discuss why and how these changes came about and share my vision of the new job of the federal executive.

Two relatively recent developments have dramatically shifted the premises on which traditional public and private sector management theory has been based: (1) a new understanding of how best to employ human capacity; and (2) the new role of information technology in transforming the manager's job.

A Shift in the Understanding of Human Capacity

First, let me talk about the shift in our understanding of human capacity. In the early 1900s, Frederick Taylor (1911) - the father of work measurement - advocated the use of hierarchies and the specialization of functions as the path to high productivity and efficiency. Similarly, organizational theorist Chester Barnard (1938) defined the role of the executive in the 1930s as being the central coordinator of an organization.

Yet, in today's environment, these approaches now seem to limit productivity rather than promote it, in part because hicrarchical structures and specialization of tasks cannot meet the communication needs of a complex and rapidly changing environment. Today, we recognize that Taylor's theories about "scientific management" are no longer applicable in the information age, and that Chester Barnard's definition of the role of the executive is likewise outdated.(1)

Were they wrong - the way alchemists were wrong to think lead could be turned into gold? I don't think so. In fact, you could argue that they were right for their time. In the 1930s, it would have been difficult for executives - whether President Franklin Roosevelt, or the CEO of General Motors - to influence what was going on in their organizations without using a hierarchical approach.

The old hierarchies were based in part on a sharp division between those who worked with their heads by thinking and those who worked with their muscles. But before very long, the best managers realized that the single most valuable asset in their organizations was the unused brain power and creativity of the men and women who were being asked only to use their muscles. And so, today, we have developed different ideas about human capacity. We have discovered that people who work primarily with their hands are capable of having new ideas. Individuals within organizations are capable of producing more than had been previously thought possible by those who assumed that the division between thinking and muscle work was the basis for organization. It is the job of the executive to uncover this untapped potential (McGregor 1960; Peters, 1992; Hammer and Champy, 1993). …

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