Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Keeping watch over Health and Human Services

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Daniel R. Levinson has headed the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services for more than a decade. In this role, he manages a staff of 1,600 employees who delve into some of the government’s hot-button issues, including health care, medical research, food and drug safety, disease prevention, welfare, and child and family services.

In an interview, Levinson explained how he tries to set the direction for his workforce without micromanaging, and talks about the importance of giving his employees the resources to do their jobs.

What drew you to public service?
During my first decade out of law school, I became interested in the effective functioning of government and how government operations could improve. By the time I entered government service in the early 1980s, I had a background in law with an intense interest in policy. I really enjoyed the opportunity to make a big difference in what I was doing.

What is your leadership philosophy?

It’s important to promote the right kind of values, standards, performance and results. I have no business doing the audits or investigations, because I really need to have the perspective on what the office has done, where it is now and where it needs to go. This requires some distance from the particular matters before us. There is a difference between a manager and a leader. A manager makes sure you’re doing things right, and a leader makes sure you’re doing the right things.

What have you learned that has helped you become more effective at leading?

Over time, I have come to appreciate how important it is to be yourself and to work on ensuring that people trust you. They don’t need to love or even like you, but you need to be able to garner a level of trust.

Do you find your job challenging?

We’re in a state of transition. Our healthcare system is changing. Discoveries at the National Institutes of Health and the work that’s being done at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are making headlines every day. It’s a complicated landscape — and if you find complication hard, it’s not a comfortable place to be. It requires intellectual curiosity to be comfortable here. You don’t really know what tomorrow’s going to bring. But you need to embrace that challenge, and that is what I do.

What do you do to improve the morale of your workforce?

One of the many great things about this office is that we tend to attract people who are committed to the mission. It can be challenging to operate when budgets are as constrained as they have been, but people understand that we are trying to do the most with the resources we have.

I don’t find people are concerned about morale as much as they are about being supported so they can do their jobs. So it’s a matter of continuously looking to see how I can provide greater support by being an effective spokesperson on Capitol Hill, and by making sure the budget is adequate to fulfill our responsibilities.

You have talked about the inevitability of making mistakes. Could you share examples of how a mistake proved to be invaluable in terms of the leadership lessons it offered?

At the Super Bowl when Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll took responsibility for the call that ended up losing the game, it reminded me it’s really important that you take responsibility for every call. I’ve made some bad calls in my life.

Another lesson involves knowing how to delegate properly. I had trouble delegating as a young manger. You can’t simply delegate and walk away. I was burned by not understanding how to delegate. It is something that is important for executives and managers to think about.

In a couple words, how would you describe yourself?

A. I would like to think I shoot straight in the office and live my life that way. My father was an accountant and a lawyer, and my mother was a psychiatric social worker and a university professor. If you cross an accountant and lawyer with a social worker, you get the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. What I try to do is combine the professionalism, integrity and financial responsibility of my father with the social conscience, commitment to quality in healthcare delivery and human services of my mother. It’s a family legacy that I feel I am trying to emulate every day.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Mar 10, 2015 at 2:31 PM

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