Successful leaders envision, shape, and safeguard the future, creating clarity amidst uncertainty. This objective is increasingly difficult in an era where rapid, unforeseen change seems constant. Agencies face serious public management challenges that go to the core of effective governance and leadership, requiring innovation, collaboration, flexibility, and understanding of the capacity needed to tackle complex, non-routine challenges. Given these challenges, leadership development programs can lay a foundation for skills that current and future executives can leverage to anticipate and respond to future opportunities and risks.

In this new report, Preparing the Next Generation of Federal Leaders: Agency-Based Leadership Development Programs, a team of expert authors—Gordon Abner, Jenny Knowles Morrison, James L. Perry, and Bill Valdez—focuses on how best to build programs that can shape and inform future government leaders.

The authors analyze the performance and efficaciousness of agency-based leadership development programs, which ensure that leaders understand trends affecting their jobs, such as risk management or cybersecurity; such programs prepare future leaders for the rigors of driving action across the federal government’s $4.4 trillion enterprise that touches the lives of all Americans daily. The depth and breadth of current agency leadership programs vary widely, inhibiting systematic development of tomorrow’s government leaders.

The report explores five core topics: 1) factors that enable a sustainable agencybased leadership development program; 2) system-level challenges to creating and operating such programs; 3) training and development strategies that have had the most success in the federal government; 4) transferable lessons learned from exemplary agency programs; and 5) ways to demonstrate programmatic return-on-investment (ROI). The report underscores that federal organizations can mount successful leadership development programs, and that the effective practices they have identified provide excellent guides across all facets of the leadership development cycle—enabling government executives to tackle problems with fresh ideas and energy.

This report builds on the Center’s extensive research into federal leadership. Previous Center reports have explored how particular leaders have responded to public management challenges they faced running a government program or agency. These reports, as well as the many leadership interviews and profiles produced by the Center, focus on telling a leader’s story, outlining experience, and sharing insights. We trust that this new report will be a useful and informative guide for efforts to build the next generation of government leaders.

Learn more and download the report

In recent years, the norms and expectations that once ensured that our government was guided primarily by the public interest rather than by individual or partisan interest have significantly weakened. There are now far fewer constraints to deter abuse by executive branch actors. This report focuses on two distinct areas: the growing politicization of government science and research and the breakdown of processes for filling key government positions.

Objective data and research are essential to effective governance and democratic oversight. But over the last few decades, the safeguards meant to keep government research objective and publicly accessible have been steadily weakening. Recent administrations have manipulated the findings of government scientists and researchers, retaliated against career researchers for political reasons, invited outside special interests to shape research priorities, undermined and sidelined advisory committees staffed by scientists, and suppressed research and analysis from public view — often material that had previously been made available. In many cases, they have appeared to pay little political price for these missteps. This trend has culminated in the efforts of the current administration not only to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics, but also, at times, to undermine the value of objective facts themselves.

Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.

  • The acting White House chief of staff reportedly instructed the secretary of commerce to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — a part of the Department of Commerce — issue a misleading statement in support of the president’s false assertion about the trajectory of a hurricane, contradicting an earlier statement released by the National Weather Service. The secretary of commerce reportedly threatened to fire top NOAA officials in pressuring them to act.
  • The Department of Agriculture relocated economists across the country after they published findings showing the financial harms to farmers of the administration’s trade policies.
  • The Interior Department reassigned its top climate scientist to an accounting role after he highlighted dangers posed by climate change.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted rules that prevent leading experts from serving on science advisory boards and encourage participation by industry-affiliated researchers.
  • The White House suppressed a report showing a toxic substance that is present in several states’ water supplies endangers human health at levels far lower than previously reported by the EPA.

Political officials have the prerogative to make policy decisions, and even challenge the science and methodology of career experts, but accurate, nonpolitical, government-supported research and analysis should be protected. Indeed, government research has shifted the course of human history through, for example, the space race, cures for disease, food- and water-safety measures, and computer and internet technology innovations.

Effective government also depends on a reliable process for filling senior government positions with qualified professionals who are dedicated to doing the people’s work. Recent presidents have filled critical jobs with unqualified cronies while leaving other posts vacant, and have found ways to sidestep the Senate’s approval role, nullifying a crucial constitutional check. For their part, lawmakers have rubber-stamped some nominees who are unqualified or have conflicts of interest while dragging their feet on considering others, often based on whether or not the Senate majority and the president share a party.

The consequences are readily apparent: less than half the senior roles at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are filled; at least a dozen agencies — including two cabinet departments — are run by non-Senate-confirmed acting officials two years into this administration; and the Senate confirmation process takes five times longer than it did 40 years ago.

If left unchecked, both of these trends are likely to do damage. Government research that is guided by politics, not the facts, can lead to ineffective and costly policy, among other harms, and a dysfunctional appointments process risks stymieing vital government functions. Both developments also threaten to exact a long-term price, if allowed to stand. They risk creating a vicious cycle, opening the door to abuse by future administrations, which may push the envelope ever further.

We are committed to teaching future administrations the opposite lesson — that these abuses of power violate broadly recognized standards of honest and effective government, long accepted by both political parties. Abuse once again can beget reform. And the task of advancing this reform could not be more urgent, and cannot be for one or another party alone.

We have big problems to solve in this nation. If we cannot agree on the facts underlying potential solutions to those problems, and we do not have qualified and dedicated people in place to develop and execute on them, we will imperil the future of our democracy.

To protect government research from politicization and keep it accessible, we offer proposals that would

  • create scientific integrity standards and require agencies to establish protocols for adhering to them,
  • prohibit politically motivated manipulation or suppression of research,
  • ensure the proper functioning of scientific advisory committees, and
  • increase public access to government research and data.

To fix the process for filling senior government positions, we offer proposals that would

  • encourage the appointment of qualified and ethical people to key government posts,
  • make it harder for presidents to sideline the Senate during the process,
  • streamline the confirmation process for executive branch nominees, and
  • protect national security by fixing the vulnerable White House security clearance process.

Our proposals narrowly target areas that are ripe for executive abuse. But as former federal government officials, we have seen up close how other factors contribute to government dysfunction and undermine democratic values. We conclude this report by highlighting these factors — in particular, our broken campaign finance system, the president’s expansive emergency powers, the weakening of Congress as a check on the executive, and the politicization of the judiciary — and we reaffirm the essential role that a functioning system of checks and balances plays in protecting our democracy.

Read the full report

Every year, the Center for a New American Security selects a bipartisan group of 20-25 emerging national security leaders between the ages of 27 to 35 to participate in the Shawn Brimley Next Generation National Security Leaders Program. In June 2018, CNAS named the program in honor of Shawn Brimley, one of the founding members of CNAS, for his incredible contributions to the Center and the national security community overall. Shawn truly exemplified the ethos and mission of the program.
This year-long, part-time professional development fellowship aims to bring together young professionals across sectors within the national security field to learn best practices and lessons in leadership. Brimley Next Gen fellows will have the opportunity to engage with thought leaders on leadership principles and national security through various engagements, including a monthly dinner series. Past speakers include Secretary Madeleine Albright, General Stanley McChrystal, Lt Gen Jim Clapper, Senator Kelly Ayotte, and Admiral Mike Mullen.
Brimley Next Gen fellows will also have the opportunity to contribute to research projects with CNAS experts and will be invited to participate in small, invitation-only meetings the Center hosts throughout the year. The program culminates in a week-long international study tour to delve deeper into national security issues and leadership.
There is no cost to participate in the program, though individuals are responsible for the cost of travel to CNAS for dinners and events. Unless otherwise stated, all events will take place at CNAS in Washington. Other frequently asked questions about the program and application cycle can be found here.

Applicants for the 2020 class can apply here.

Listen to government’s untold stories.

Presenting #StoriesOfService: a campaign to celebrate and honor the voices of public service. Each Wednesday for the next month, we will share a new track featuring a 2019 Sammies finalist. Each of these outstanding honorees reflected on their public service journey in conversations facilitated by StoryCorps®, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.”

Learn more and listen to the stories