Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Alice Rivlin on being aggressively apolitical

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

Alice Rivlin, an expert on fiscal and monetary policy, is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. She was founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and was vice chair of the Federal Reserve.

What are some of the key leadership lessons from your experience working in the federal government?

You can't start out saying, "I'm going to be a leader." You have to start out saying, "I'm really interested in this problem or in improving how government functions" and get yourself in the position to start doing it. Leadership has to be based on doing solid work and keeping at it.

What were some of the challenges you faced starting the Congressional Budget Office and what did you do to overcome them?

We had to formulate a clear idea of the purpose of the CBO. It was very important that it do good analysis and be non-partisan and serve the leadership of both parties. That meant being aggressively apolitical. I think the decisions that I made, along with the small group that worked with me setting it up, proved to be the right ones. We decided, for example, that the CBO should not make recommendations but should give options or alternatives. We stuck to that even when members of Congress were persistently saying, "Please tell us what you really think we ought to do." It would have undermined the nonpartisan character of the organization if we had given explicit policy recommendations.

Given the recent anti-government sentiment and fiscal uncertainty, are there strategies you would advocate for leaders to keep their employees motivated?

Get employees really engaged in how we can do things better. We did that early in the Clinton Administration at OMB. As deputy director, I led a project called OMB 2000. We looked at the whole structure of the agency, but mostly we operated by getting together groups at the working level to talk about what they were doing and how to do it better, and ways to reorganize the agency that might help. It's really important for somebody at the top of an agency to spend a lot of time with the people who actually do the work. At OMB we had brown bag lunches with groups of working-level employees. I did the same thing at the Federal Reserve. Get people together in an informal setting and talk about their jobs.

How do you see government service as an opportunity for a new generation to make a difference, and what do you think are the barriers to public service?

Government service is a wonderfully exciting career, and I feel very fortunate to have spent time in government and spent the rest of my career on public policy issues. I perceive the younger generation as having quite an idealistic service streak and I hope that it will carry them into public service, including elected office. The barriers are that you have to forgo some possible opportunities to make a lot more money. There's always the idea that, "If I just went into investment banking, I'd be a millionaire very quickly." You have to overcome that and recognize that public service is a good living. Then you have to be prepared to have your life and your private actions and your finances scrutinized. You have to be careful about your personal life, which is a good idea anyway. It's particularly important in government service.

Was there a mentor or a critical event that helped you become the leader you are today?

One critical choice was choosing to major in economics in college rather than history, the track I thought I was on, because economics was more public policy oriented. Eventually a Ph.D. in economics gave me a credential that was important. I had mentors along the way. One was Joe Peckman, who was my boss early at the Brookings Institution. Mentoring just meant his taking me seriously, giving me advice on the things I was writing and then helping me get into positions where I could make a difference. He chaired a White House task force on revenue sharing-this was in the Johnson administration-and he put me on it. It was a great experience. The opportunity to run the CBO certainly changed my life. I got to manage something from the ground up and it was successful. That was a turning point in my career.

To what do you attribute your success as a leader? What do you think other folks can do to foster those elements of success?

Over my career I've experienced a growing sense of self-confidence. At the beginning, and this is partly from being a woman, I was reluctant to speak up. But as I did it, I found people listened and I began doing it more. Suddenly, without actually thinking about it, there I was being a leader. There's a balancing act involved. You don't want to be too outspoken or brash or critical. But I think, especially in government, the main impediment for a woman leader is learning to articulate your ideas and not be afraid to speak up.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 15, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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