As an MBA intern in the White House Office of Management & Budget, I was charged with helping to "make government cool again"
Fascinating. Insightful. Investigative. Tumultuous. Microcosmic. Realistic. These are just a few of the adjectives that describe the once-in-a-lifetime summer opportunity I enjoyed from May through August of this year, as an MBA intern in the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) in the White House.
My stories can (and do) go on for lengths that far exceed this space, but let me share a secret that I wish I'd known beforehand: the business school courses that I thought would be utterly useless proved critical and for the most part, vice versa. Although statistics and probability informed my thinking and shaped my problem-solving approaches, I consciously used the skills learned in those classes maybe once, if that often. On the other hand, organizational behavior courses—say, managing organizations, and the art of analyzing power and influencing networks —as well as presentation skills, strategic planning, and "Marketing 101" were the bread and butter of my daily activities.
I was hired with a mandate to help "make government cool again." The phrase came from President Barack Obama in a September 2008 speech at Columbia University. In case you're wondering, "making government cool again" isn't actually a job description. And yet it is.
A Matter of Passion
Perhaps, the single most exciting truth that I can report from inside the Executive Office of the President is that a sea change is happening when it comes to the business of governance. At the heart of that change is an approach to government as business—that's revolutionary. What it means for MBAs is, quite simply, that we represent the most expert cadre of future talent that our country's leaders will need to tap. I was tasked to revamp USAJobs.gov—the so-called "Face of Federal Hiring"—to attract top talent into the federal government at a time when it is both expanding and watching its functions become more specialized.
Where do business-minded folks fit in? Here's just one prime example: The Performance and Personnel Management Division of OMB, where I was assigned for the summer, sits at the heart of a strategy to make the government not only efficient, but also accountable, for the execution of plans as detailed and within their cost estimates.
Among the new office heads, Jeff Zients, a wildly successful entrepreneur, management consultant, and corporate executive, certainly hasn't gone into government seeking job security. For him, it's a matter of passion—and a place he can make a difference. After all, MBAs are taught to seek trends—and Zients fits into one, profoundly. His title: Federal Chief Performance Officer. Top agencies around the government are also installing COOs, CFOs, and chief human capital officers (the uncomfortably named "CHiCOs").
No Chugging the Kool-Aid
C-Suite titles aren't government-standard. They're corporate language, and they flow off the MBA's tongue like wine. Indeed, the integration of a corporate mentality into government suggests that expanding operations under a Democratic President may well be joined by more efficient decision-making, and greater accountability, in the long run.
But I didn't chug the Kool-Aid. There is a downside (political and organizational reality for starters). MBAs are well-trained to handle the fundamentals of due diligence and organizational transformation; we certainly focus heavily on them at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business (Tepper Full-Time MBA School Profile).
There is, for better and worse, a veritable gulf between the highest-performing federal employees and the lowest-performing ones, but unlike in the corporate world, one cannot simply fire a federal employee, because of a bevy of civil service protections and the operation of unions within government agencies. Think of all those companies that are famous for annually culling the lowest-performing members of their workforce, or General Electric (GE), which refused to stay in business lines where it couldn't be No. 1 or No. 2. Take away that strategic power, and what's left is a gargantuan organizational dilettante with what one of my summer supervisors called "diffuse accountability."
My Boss: "The Turbine"
Jettisoning underperforming team members is a far more complicated endeavor than in even most unionized private-sector companies. Feds can be fired for cause, but the hurdle is incredibly high, and shifting federal government strategy is like turning a large ship if the ship is an oil tanker with an aircraft carrier on its back. To nimble-minded managers who prize lead operations and rapid execution, government work can be frustrating, but it can also be inspiring.
Within two weeks of arriving at OMB, I dubbed my boss "the Turbine" (an affectionate nickname that I'm still not sure he appreciated). The truth is, I've never seen someone work as hard as this man does and for a tiny fraction of the credit he deserves. Incredibly long hours, back-to-back-to-back meetings with agency big shots who have agendas that can match (or even exceed) the size of their personalities are a big part of his day—and still he finds time to take his young kids camping on the weekends. A paragon of balance, he would be a wise teacher to anyone looking to excel while enjoying his chosen occupation.
Another individual, who I'm proud to say has become a dear friend, is responsible for more than 3,000 people in a single overarching department. Yet in four months, I saw him flustered maybe once. Federal employees—especially at the managerial level—internalize the idea of work-life balance, which serves them well. It keeps them happy. By day, it's all smiles, business, and courtesy—far from the government stereotype. On the weekend, it's a motorcycle or a kayak or a camping trip with the kids, but always with a Blackberry, in case the world begins to fall apart.
Low Pay, High Impact
These standout examples are savvier than most, but they're far from atypical. Again, though, there's a downside. After two decades of service, federal managers get paid about what an MBA earns in less than three to five years post-graduation.
Still, federal employees weigh insane hours and inane bureaucracy and utterly insulting pay against the ultimate upside: immediate and outsized impact. As one of my OMB colleagues explained, in the federal government "a million dollars is a rounding error."
Try to fathom the scale of the budgets that even junior federal employees can control. I sat in on a Congressional session where a vote on $15 million was given three minutes of debate. Yet at OMB, every cent is accounted for, explained, and justified, because these civil servants believe in their duties. They understand that even small changes will affect the lives of millions (or even billions) of people around the world. They take that work very seriously, and in some cases take so much ownership in their work-product that they resist change, leading roundabout to the sloth we citizens hear about so often.
Ignoring Our Greatest Gifts
Once you're inside the system, interestingly, feds' possessiveness becomes strangely understandable in light of the work they put in. GS employees—that is, the civil servants who are not appointed or elected to political positions—have limited decision-making power. They analyze, interpret, account, and craft, but ultimately, they can only make policy recommendations. Yet MBAs are highly trained—over the course of two years and many thousands of dollars—to make decisions. Since only policy officials (i.e., political appointees and/or elected officials) have the power to make substantive decisions, MBAs in government staff positions will be expected to check at the door everything that we learn to do expertly; we are essentially expected to ignore our greatest gifts.
When one considers the scale of government operations—and government impact—the risk will never be higher, but neither will the opportunity to become a beacon of responsibility (corporate, social, or political). Before arriving at Tepper, I spent five years as a reporter, and I have so much love for the media industry that to watch its implosion is wrenching. But never before working inside the federal government have I been actually ashamed to affiliate with the media.
From the inside, I witnessed firsthand that journalists from top newspapers fabricated outdated or nonsensical details in an effort to fill copy space. Most times, they had been stonewalled by agency communications directors because to publish any story at the particular moment would have been premature and/or distracting. Irresponsible practices not only spread misinformation but also hamper progress. At the same time, they underscore a critical lesson in ethics at a time when corporate and political mistrust are sharing the same trough.