President Biden, your federal workforce is your best tool for real change
Whether or not you were a fan of the Trump administration, it is clear that by routinely abandoning the traditional conventions of government, it upended decades of the status quo across government programs.
As a result, the Biden administration now finds itself at a particular moment in time where it can capitalize on the disruption of the last four years to make wholesale change to the way we “do” government. This moment allows for more than the incremental changes that we have seen in the last half century under both Democrat and Republican administrations. We must seize this moment.
The federal workforce is the key to implementing these changes. Far from being part of “the deep state,” federal employees are dedicated patriots who span the political spectrum and they are the key to making government work effectively. Now, for the first time in decades, we have the chance to fundamentally change the federal workforce by giving employees the tools and creating the climate to meet the challenges of the time. Investing in federal employees — through training, empowerment and sustainment programs — will inspire change in their culture for the greater good. It will provide our civil servants with an identity and a shared history. Just as federal workers have an opportunity to serve in one of the most challenging times in American history, the Biden administration has its own opportunity: reconsider their approach to human capital within the federal government.
This fundamental change does not call for either a larger or smaller government but a competent government — a right-sized government. The American people deserve high-functioning government — produced by identifying, hiring, empowering, resourcing, training and sustaining talented people. By prioritizing their development and making the federal workforce the employer of choice, the concept of high-functioning governance will become a reality and keep Americans safe and prosperous.
Our military has a legacy of storied units and formations, recorded achievements and a culture of service to the nation. Unfortunately, our government’s recent history witnessed a lack of interagency process, an exodus of expertise, disruptive shutdowns and a rapid decrease in morale. Federal workers have been deprioritized and their work underappreciated, resulting in countless numbers leaving public service in the hope of finding meaningful and brighter careers elsewhere. Our federal employees suffer from a lack of identity, little shared history and a limited sense of the value of their contributions. Their work is currently sub-optimized and undervalued. This must change.
We expect government employees to stay true to their covenant to work hard every day to make our country run smoothly. We — as leaders and taxpayers — have the other half of the covenant: to provide tools and resources to enable them to reach their potential. We should not, however, invest blindly — we must recognize federal employees for great performance and hold them accountable when they fall short.
However, our government is not a business — it is different and, arguably, more important. While we acknowledge federal industries could take a page from business’ books to be more efficient and effective for the American taxpayer, we must manage our people differently. Unlike businesses, our government cannot tie investment in the federal workforce to its bottom line. Effective government is not a set of prescribed mechanical processes executed by mindless drones — it demands talented, well-trained, committed and cared-for workers.
Today’s challenges demand our government can and should be a force for good. We achieve this most effectively when we train, equip and empower our government workers to not only do their jobs, but also to find ways to do their jobs better. We must approach the federal workforce as a government — not as a business — because the stakes are high. In doing so, we can harness the inherent power of the workforce, and make meaningful changes in the lives of everyday Americans.
Our return of investment will be the attraction of our nation’s best and brightest, increased retention of employees and boosted morale, all resulting in expanded effectiveness. The time is now; together we can build a better government.
Stanley Allen McChrystal is a retired U.S. Army four-star general. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a partner at McChrystal Group, a leadership development firm.
Lauren Weiner, PhD., is CEO of WWC Global. The firm’s mission is to help federal agencies put good government principles into practice.
Jenny Stone is president of Partner Forces, a woman-owned small business that supports homeland security and the national security enterprise.