Boss class: Why are frontline staff more confident in US federal leadership than the top officials themselves?

By on 06/01/2022 | Updated on 06/01/2022
Aerial view of the White House and Old Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Global Government Forum and PA Consulting’s Responsive Government Survey examined the views of civil servants from nine countries on how responsive their government was to the changing demands and pressures of modern government.

The survey, which received 873 responses, including 133 from senior officials, across nine countries, found that almost three-quarters of participants (72%) agreed with the statement ‘My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs’, with just 19% disagreeing.

The United States was below average in many of the rankings, with the exception of perceptions of the available tools and resources, and the use of evidence in policymaking.

Although the overall leadership score was below average, the US stood out as the only nation where confidence in the leadership was higher among more junior grades than among the leaders themselves.

This was found throughout the report. Overall, civil servants in the US pride themselves on their effective use of technology to deliver policy and services, and on how they collect and use data to track service outcomes. The total US group scored higher than any other Five Eyes country (the group also includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) on all statements relating to use of technology, evidence and insights, but the non-management civil servants were more positive on all indicators than their more senior compatriots.

Likewise, in response to the overall statement – ‘My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen needs’ – 87% of frontline civil servants agreed, compared with 67% of leaders.

Despite the high esteem they were held in by their more junior colleagues, US leaders were more downbeat than their peer groups in other countries. For example, they scored lowest overall on the statements about leadership and organisational vision, staff empowerment and autonomy, and among the bottom two on statements around environment for change and moving at pace.

The trend continued in other parts of the report. For example, managers and non-managers gave higher ratings than their leaders did on the top cohort’s ability to inspire and support the workforce to pursue and realise opportunity in the face of adversity. Nearly three quarters (71%) of frontline US staff agreed that leaders inspire, support and drive new ideas and change, compared with 58% of the leadership cohort.

Indeed, organisational direction and purpose is better understood by US civil servants than its leaders give them credit for. Nearly three-quarters of non-management staff agreed that all staff have a good understanding of the future direction of their organisation, compared to 42% of leaders and 58% of managers.

In addition, US civil servants were most likely of all Five Eyes groups to say they have the autonomy to design and deliver their own solutions, and that staff are rewarded for pursuing opportunities for change, even if there is a risk of failure. Along with Canada, they were also most likely to say that decisions made by their line managers are always explained and understood by the teams affected – even though their leaders were least likely to claim this was true.

The US position contrasted sharply with New Zealand on many of these issues. New Zealand leaders scored themselves among the highest of Five Eyes cohorts on statements relating to leadership, empowerment and experimentation, but these views were not widely shared by their more junior colleagues.

US leaders were also most circumspect about their response to Covid. Just over half (58%) agreed that adapting to change had helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present three years prior to the pandemic. This is significantly lower than any other leadership cohort.

However, there were some areas where US leaders did think they led the pack. They are more confident in their deployment of data and technology to design and deliver solutions.

All US leaders agreed that their organisation is led by data insights to track policy and service outcomes with end users, with three-quarters strongly agreeing. However, they saw there was room for improvement in putting this data to use – only half agreed that wherever possible, their organisation uses citizen or end-user input to form policy and implementation solutions, and two-thirds that they have a cyclical process for improving services, which integrates citizen and end-user feedback.

Likewise, the US leads the Five Eyes group in terms of the view that there is open workflow and knowledge exchange with other government organisations. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of US respondents agreed to some extent.

US respondents had the most confidence among the Five Eyes nations that they can quickly source the data they need to make decisions.

The 2021 survey is a pilot project that will expand in scope and coverage in future years.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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