by James Thompson and Alejandra Medina, University of Illinois – Chicago

Measuring the Quality of Management of Federal Agencies

In normal times, elected and appointed government officials pay relatively little attention to the question of how well public agencies are managed.  During times of emergency and recovery however, management capacity shortcomings become painfully obvious and the scrutiny of internal operations increases.  In the context of the present COVID-19 crisis, considerable attention has been directed to the difficulties that have been encountered in administering loans to small businesses, to the processing of unemployment claims, and to the sudden, massive shift by public employees to telework.

In a recent report issued by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, we propose the creation of a program whereby each federal agency would be routinely assessed on how well it is managed and on its capacity to handle future challenges.   A key advantage of such a system is that it would draw the attention of policymakers to issues of management quality at times other than those of crisis. Investments could then be targeted at agencies that have outdated systems or that are simply poorly run such that when the next crisis hits, the government is ready.

In the report, we cite other, similar such initiatives including those designed to assess the management quality of private sector firms and of public agencies in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.  Among the approaches that have been employed to assess management quality in these different venues have been, 1) the compilation and review of related metrics, 2) review teams comprised of senior executives to review documents and conduct interviews, and 3) surveys of mid-level managers.

We suggest six key building blocks that could serve as a foundation for designing and implementing a governmentwide initiative to measure the management quality of federal agencies. Our conclusion is that such a program can only have an impact if it is sustained over time and it will only be sustained over time if it is embedded in the career workforce. The willingness of the Senior Executives Association to convene a taskforce to follow through on the recommendations in the report is therefore critical.  The program needs to be designed in such a way that agencies perceive it to be of value and participate on a voluntary basis.  The hope is that the program will stimulate a learning dynamic whereby agencies learn from each other about tactics, techniques, processes, and habits of thought that characterize well-managed organizations.

Figure 1. Building Blocks for Designing a Management Quality Instrument

Figure 1

A system of measures such as we envision can emulate the dynamic associated with the annual Best Places to Work (BPW) initiative sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service.  The BPW rankings have had the effect of drawing attention to employee engagement as an element of agency health and effectiveness and agencies have made investments to improve working conditions as a direct result. Our hope is that an effort to rate agencies on overall management quality can similarly provoke attention to and investments in the management function writ large.


James ThompsonJames Thompson is Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Illinois – Chicago. Dr. Thompson’s primary research interests are in the areas of human resource management, the civil service and organizational change in the public sector. Publications include, “Value Shifts in Public Sector Human Resource Management” (2017), “Leadership and Transformation of a Major Institution: Charles Rossotti at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service” (2006), and, “The Federal Civil Service: Demise of an Institution,” (2006). Dr. Thompson has authored or co-authored several reports for the IBM Center for the Business of Government including, “Modernizing Human Resource Management in the Federal Government: The IRS Model” (2003), “Federated Human Resource Management in the Federal Government: The Intelligence Community Model” (with Rob Seidner) (2009) and, “Designing and Implementing Performance-Oriented Payband Systems” (2007). Dr. Thompson received his Ph.D. from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 1996.

Alejandra MedinaAlejandra Medina is currently a PhD student of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before joining the PhD program, she worked in the Federal Government of Mexico in areas related to international cooperation and law enforcement. Medina also has worked as an external consultant for international organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Medina decided to pursue a doctoral program to combine the academic and practitioner experience to better understand public organizations and the importance of institutional design for an effective collaboration between agencies and individuals. Some of her main research interests are related to the understanding of how public organizations affect the behavior of individuals, what issues affect the decision-making process within organizations, and what are the internal and external factors that affects collaboration within and across agencies.