Detailed Study Approach
The study was conducted through four phases of work.
Phase I: Defining Research Questions with Alliance Advisers
In Phase I, the Alliance team conducted interviews with senior leaders in government and education, a subset of whom joined the study’s advisory committee, to define the most valuable objectives for the study and to guide project design. These first-phase discussions were wide ranging, reflecting advisers’ diverse concerns with systemic issues facing government and associated challenges in attracting, recruiting, and retaining top talent for the public sector.
Because the starting field of inquiry was broad and included the aim of being relevant at the federal, state, and local levels, the Alliance team worked with advisers to refine study parameters to provide a distinctive and discrete contribution. Advisers agreed that a focus on hearing directly from the rising generation of public servants who are poised to take on senior leadership in the coming decades, followed by consultation with senior leaders to interpret and validate needs, would provide added value to the current knowledge base.
As the Volcker Alliance’s mission is to promote effective government and to provide more actionable findings and recommendations, the study population was further narrowed to those rising leaders who work in government in a strictly defined manner—characterized by one adviser as those with “an eagle on their paycheck.” This choice was not intended to discount the important contributions of professionals who participate in public service through other means. Advisers from universities, for instance, noted that schools of public affairs prepare graduates for a wide range of public service environments and that at many schools a declining percentage of graduates join government service. But all advisers agreed that this cohort of rising leaders is especially critical to ensuring effective government.
Study advisers contributed guidance to the Volcker team as it prepared to conduct focus groups with rising leaders. They recommended several competency areas for exploration, including leadership and team building, data and business management, global and financial literacy, policy acumen, and negotiation.
Phase II: Focus Groups with Rising Government Leaders
In Phase II the Alliance team conducted focus groups with rising government leaders in New York City; Washington, DC; Austin, Texas; and Seattle. Each group comprised individuals in management roles with five to fifteen years’ experience in federal, state, or local government service. Participants were recommended by colleagues and Alliance advisers as “rising stars” who were advancing in government service and likely to hold senior leadership positions in the future. The focus group discussions were conducted over dinner in environments where participants could speak freely and confidentially about their careers in government service.
In the focus groups, participants were asked to reflect on the characteristics and practices that enabled them to be successful in government service, in terms of managing projects and teams and of accomplishing their department’s goals. As discussed in the prior sections, participants in all four cities strongly prioritized the role of interpersonal strengths and “earned experience” in being effective at work, emphasizing these along with communications skills over other functional skill sets, including data and financial management. Reflecting on professional development and education options they had already or wanted to access, focus group participants most valued opportunities to engage with peers and codevelop solutions to shared needs in the practice of government.
Phase III: Evaluating Competencies Through Survey Research with Rising Government Leaders
To learn more about the competencies and educational offerings valuable for government service, the project included a national survey of early-to-midcareer federal, state, and local government managers. Huron Consulting Group’s market research practice administered the survey. Respondents were recruited via distribution lists shared by the following professional associations and schools of public affairs.
Respondents first answered a short series of screening questions to confirm survey eligibility. Respondents were required to have at least two and no more than twenty years’ experience in government and to currently have a job in federal, state, or local government that included managerial responsibilities, such as the management of people, budgets, or time-bound projects. Respondents who had left their government positions within the last two years but met all the criteria were also permitted to complete the survey.
The survey had two primary content areas. First, respondents were asked to evaluate the relative importance of a list of broad competency areas and related skill sets that had been developed through the focus groups and advisory meetings. Second, they were asked about their preferences for professional development and other education activities to support their effectiveness at work.
The demographics of our survey respondents reasonably resemble that of the federal workforce, which is largely managerial. It would be difficult to separate managerial and nonmanagerial functions and aggregate data across states and localities; therefore, federal data serves as a proxy, although our data also includes respondents at the state and local level. We did not reweight the data for analysis.
Phase IV: Gathering Senior Subject Matter Experts’ Perspectives on Meeting Education and Training Needs
Finally, the Alliance team conducted interviews with educators, government leaders, and innovation experts to consider ways to best meet education and development needs identified through the research with rising government leaders. These experts helped interpret findings from the survey research and focus groups, and shared examples of professional development approaches and programs they had successfully implemented in their organizations. There was significant synergy among interviewed experts regarding effective development practices; in particular, experts emphasized the value of networked and peer-to-peer learning, as well as career-stage development models. These approaches and recommendations are described in previous sections of the report.