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Federal Career Service Leadership: Can We Do Better?

Following is a review of the book The Early Years of the Federal Executive Institute (FEI): Theory,
History, Reflections (iUniverse, 2010), compiled and edited by Frank P.
Sherwood, the first FEI executive director.

Alexis Halley

Leadership well beyond the ordinary is needed to operate effectively in today’s public service. According to a recent book, the end of the chaotic first decade of the 21st century is an occasion to reflect on the insights and capacities the top echelon of the federal career service needs to make our national government work. The book of 30 essays–The Early Years of the Federal Executive Institute (FEI): Theory, History, Reflections (iUniverse, 2010)–compiled and edited by Frank P. Sherwood, the first FEI executive director, argues that the early years of the FEI (1968-76) contain important lessons worth examining as a departure point.

FEI was established during one of the most fractious and volatile periods of the 20th century, beginning with assassinations, race riots, and the seemingly interminable Vietnam War. According to Sherwood, the imperatives of that environment included “an effort to endow the career leadership levels of the federal government with the capacity and motivation to bring proactive change to a huge enterprise” (p.3). The essays by Sherwood (who provides 11 of the 30 chapters) and his 15 colleagues debate and distill what can be learned from these founding years when FEI was seeking to fulfill its mandate as a special resource for executive leaders in the federal government.

This is not a book about executive training, nor is it a complete history of the 42 years of the FEI. The book can be appreciated at several levels, augmenting its three themes of theory, history, reflections. At one level, the volume is a provocative case study, a cautionary tale of the perils and pitfalls in institution-building–even self-conscious institution-building by a talented and expert cadre. At another level, the book can be seen, as Chester Newland, the second executive director, puts it, as a chronicle of “the enduring American struggle over politics and public executives”. At a third level, the book is a fond, albeit self-critical, memoir by many of those who were there during those heady days when John Macy, the rightly-acclaimed chairman of the Civil Service Commission, embarked on creating something more than a training program for the Supergrades: A model of the best in the university world within the federal bureaucracy.

FEI during 1968-76 was an innovative experiment in executive education located in Charlottesville, Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. The contributors recount and argue about how the implementation of the FEI was undertaken, the minefields encountered, and the results realized and not realized in this dramatic, ambitious, and difficult process.

The early FEI was marked by struggles over: values and orientations; hierarchy and heterarchy; autonomy, visibility and accountability; enduring institution and temporary organization; financing; research and service delivery; learning and change–dynamics that reflect considerable uncertainty about who knows what, who learns what, how, why, and for how long. To establish a “Federal” “Executive” “Institute” that would be a model organization to its clientele, the founders had to navigate the interstices of congressional-executive relations, presidential–career executive relations, university-government relations, political-career relations, partisan relations, international relations, federalism, agency-central personnel relations, andragogy-pedagogy, and the nature of time and behavior change.

Among the foundational premises of the FEI was that “engagement in inquiry and contemplation by senior executives would result in improved public policy” (p.11). Critics argued that FEI’s emphasis on the individual in the executive role ignored policy, program management, and organizational analysis, and was insufficient to address the systemic and structural issues of the times. This classic tension–developing the personal capacities of individuals versus developing the effectiveness of federal management, policy and organizational performance–permeates the volume.

John Macy’s aspirations for an executive leadership center “to foster learning, advocate change, and constitute a real base of support for those on the firing line” have never been more relevant (p.28). The initial FEI charge seems as fresh and urgent in today’s unpredictable and fearful world as it was 40 years ago. Now, as then, senior federal executives should certainly be addressing: “the major problems facing American society and the nature of government’s response to them, the adequacy of the existing structure of government in relation to today’s problems, and the ways in which administration of federal programs could be improved” (p.36).

During the early 21st century, the federal response to a series of crises both natural and man-made has been widely perceived as inefficient and ineffective, levels of public trust in government are declining, and more and better service is expected even as agency budgets are cut. Costs of senior executive training are questioned even as commitments to maintain a well-trained, highly competent federal workforce are affirmed. But could a 21st century version of the early Federal Executive Institute be created in today’s federal climate? Sherwood’s answer is that it could not.

How can we strengthen top career leadership in the federal government? Who are the top echelon executives? What do presidents, members of Congress, and the public expect from the highest-level government executives, career and political, civilian and military, who comprise the more than 7,000 members of today’s Senior Executive Service? Is there a need for a new initiative to foster federal executive leadership capacities adequate to meet the challenges? This profile of the early FEI bristles with conclusions, but wisely offers no concluding chapter, inviting ongoing discussion on these perennial issues.

While current political, social and fiscal realities seem inauspicious for new initiatives in federal executive education, not to make such an investment seems to leave us unprepared for the new world that is emerging.

Chapter Overview

• Chapters 1-9 describe the roots, laws, executive orders, actors, events, institutions, conflicts, and theory surrounding the creation and implementation of the original FEI vision, primarily through the eyes of the first two FEI executive directors, Frank Sherwood and Chester Newland.

• Chapters 10-14 and Chapter 30 examine deliberate attempts to institutionalize the early FEI, including such features as the FEI national advisory board, market financed mechanisms, the formation of the FEI alumni association, and building a “TQM” culture within the FEI.

• In Chapters 15-20, faculty and staff share their perspectives (personal, conceptual, and institutional) on those same formative years. Ron Stupak’s trilogy, written in three voices–participant-observer, FEI faculty member, and outside observer–gives an especially lucid portrait of the rise and fall of the early FEI.

• Chapters 21-24 depict the possibilities and pitfalls of institution building at the university-government interface, in particular, in the early collaboration with the University of Virginia. The role of the Ford Foundation in nurturing collaboration is addressed. Although the early FEI was, in the eyes of the contributors, well on its way to institutional status, they generally agree that the autonomy is gone, and continuity was not realized.

• Chapters 25-28 include evaluations from two of the original Advisory Board members, from an internal FEI evaluation committee, from the National Academy of Public Administration, and from an FEI faculty member.

• Chapter 29 identifies paradoxes and conflicts within the SES that inhibit executive development efforts focused on substantive culture change, and offers alternatives for the future.

ASPA member Alexis Halley is assistant professor of public administration, University of Illinois at Springfield. She served as founding program co-director during the early years of the John C. Stennis Congressional Staff Fellows Program, and as program director during the early years of the Florida Certified Public Manager Program. Email: [email protected]

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