Sections 7 and 8 of Article I of the U.S. Constitution give Congress control over the budget of the federal government, yet the authors of that document probably never imagined the astronomical amount of money this would one day involve. After all, the federal government’s outlay in 2004—more than $2 trillion—was more money than existed in the entire world when the Constitution was ratified in 1791. With rising expenditures have come expansive bureaucracies and extensive programs, along with a need to follow all of that money around. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which changed its name from the General Accounting Office under recently passed legislation, is an independent and nonpartisan body created to study how the federal government spends taxpayer funds, and to advise Congress and the heads of cabinet departments about how to improve effectiveness and efficiency. To educate GAO’s 3,200 employees, who must have a sophisticated understanding of government, law, finance and writing composition, the organization has kissed training goodbye, said Carol Willett, chief learning officer at GAO’s Center for Performance and Learning (CPL).
“I think it’s the heritage of the manufacturing years of the United States, when the model really was to train workers,” Willett said. “‘Training’ was a perfectly good word. You knew exactly what you wanted them to do, and you wanted them to do it under fairly stable and predictable conditions. You didn’t want them to get creative, you didn’t want them exercising judgment and you didn’t want them to find a better way—you just wanted them to do something in a replicable fashion. I don’t think that world exists anymore. The complexity of our world requires that whatever your level in an organization or your degree of experience, you’ve got to be able to exercise critical thinking skills. You have to be able to make balanced decisions, usually based on inadequate information, under situations where you’re feeling stress and time pressure.
“The only way you equip people to do well is to educate them, not train them,” she added. “You’re not trying to create an automatic stimulus and response. Rather, when a stimulus comes along, you want people to evaluate it, look at the broader context and, out of a range of choices, balance the pros and cons in order to come up with whatever best meets the needs of that situation.”
There are three channels for learning at GAO, Willett said. The first is centralized learning, which comes out of the CPL This includes programs around orientation, core analytic skills and leadership development. The second is GAO’s subject-matter-focused teams, or in-house education through knowledge sharing, expertise exchange or specific tutorials. The third venue is external learning, which includes conferences, presentations, membership on oversight boards or anything else outside the organization that enhances the expertise of GAO staff.
The orientation component involves familiarizing new GAO employees with the organization and its client, the U.S. Congress, and acquainting them with organizational values: accountability, integrity and reliability. “They really are spelled out,” Willett said of those values. “They’re in big silver letters on the outside of our building, they’re on our business cards, they’re on the Web site, they’re underneath the logo—they’re just absolutely everywhere you look. Orientation to those values is critical. Those values support decision making at all levels throughout the organization. That orientation piece isn’t just where the water cooler is or what health benefits you have. It’s how you conduct yourself in Washington, D.C., and in the politically charged environment outside of Washington, D.C., where the reputation of the organization sits on how you present yourself and how you conduct engagement.”
Core analytic skills, including interview preparation and management, information and evidence gathering, evaluation of findings, assessment of factual reliability and arrangement of data in a report for the Congressional customer, represent the largest body of knowledge within CPL. “Core analytic skills is a huge piece of the pie,” Willett said. “I would say it’s at least 60 percent of all the content that I’m responsible for. It is primarily focused on experience within the first couple of years, but we do have core analytic skills that go all the way up to the senior executive ranks.”
The third element of workforce education programs—leadership development—is the most recent addition of all, but its newness is hardly a shortcoming. A well-developed arrangement of simulations and courses builds up and supports the skills of GAO’s leaders, and the highest level of curricula in this area includes a month of study at Harvard University and shadowing the comptroller general and other senior personnel. “It is the most rigorous executive development program I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them,” said Willett, who virtually started it from scratch upon her arrival at GAO. “When I came here a couple of years ago, we actually didn’t have a leadership program. There were scattered courses that we purchased from vendors and presented pretty much as they were, but there wasn’t a unified approach to leadership.”
Willett frequently employs evaluations and anecdotal feedback to gauge the relevance and efficacy of CPL offerings, which help her improve the quality of GAO learning programs. “I do annual interviews of all managing directors,” she said. “In the last few years, the curve has been heading from negative to positive. The curriculum designs we had a few years ago were very heavy on telling and very light on practice. Evaluations reflected that. Increasingly, what those supervisors and participants have reported is that the quality of learning is going up because of the emphasis on practice. Our evaluation rate on courses tends to run between 83 and 85 percent, meaning that folks do give us their evaluations. That’s part of the culture at GAO: We’re auditors and evaluators, and we like to audit and evaluate things.”
Approximately 25 percent of GAO’s employees are scattered across 11 field offices in the United States, while 75 percent are based at organizational headquarters in Washington, D.C. More than half of the GAO workforce is made up of analysts and evaluators who research, write and produce GAO’s reports to Congress. Because of CPL’s philosophical underpinning on employee education and its geographical reach, most of what Willett termed “what” and “how” learning—relatively straightforward information on a skill or process—has been placed online. However, she believes “why” and “who” education should be delivered via interpersonal techniques.
“When you get to the ‘why’ and the ‘who,’ it’s critically important that people in those learning situations are able to talk with other people and kind of think through—out loud—the ramifications of one choice versus another—to actually practice a skill, whatever that skill may be, and get some feedback on it,” Willett said. “From that framework, we’re in the process of looking at the entire curricula and figuring out what of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we can migrate to modularized learning via the Web and what we need to preserve of the ‘why’ and ‘who’ that has got to be facilitated in some way by humans, whether that’s through video, IPTV, NetMeeting or some other type of Web-based conference, or in a face-to-face instructor-led classroom.”
Because of this move toward blended modalities and an emphasis on the primacy of the learner in the education process, one of the goals of CPL is to strengthen its relationship to GAO’s information systems and technology services (ISTS) department. “We hope to establish a strategic partnership with them, so that we can create the technical infrastructure within GAO to really support learner-centric operations,” Willett said. “I would say we’re not learner-centric right now. We’re still kind of delivery-centric. That gets in the way of supporting timely learning. It forces us to drop back to doing things on a schedule instead of when somebody needs it. There are a lot of technical pieces that have to come together; not just organizing the content of our courses, but really creating job aids and support tools for continuous learning. I can’t do that without technology.”
One unique feature of CPL’s instructor-led and coaching offerings is the fact that it has no full-time, paid instructors on staff. All of GAO’s teachers are “borrowed” from the line and must audition for spots on the organization’s all-volunteer adjunct faculty as well as subject-matter expert positions, Willett said. She provides incentives for personnel who volunteer for these jobs, such as continuing professional education credits, awards and cash bonuses, but finds the best benefits come in the form of career advancement.
“Being in the adjunct faculty gives you a few wonderful things,” Willett said. “It greatly enhances your competence in leading and developing others, which are two competencies that GAO measures annually. Secondarily, your ability to explain to someone else how to do something is going to make you a more effective analyst in charge, a more effective assistant director and a more effective director. Third, if you volunteer to teach in GAO programs, you get to look over the talent pool as it exists elsewhere in the organization. That’s kind of a foot forward in being able to spot talent and recruit them to come work with you someday.”
This effort to create a formidable blended learning program by matching the right technology to the right content has made rapid headway so far, said David Clark, managing director of GAO’s professional development program. “We used to have a training institute in which learning was delivered the old-fashioned way: You signed up for and went to a class,” he explained. “We’re moving away from the old-line lecture format and moving toward blended learning and Web-based training. For GAO, that approach is fairly new, and I think we’ve had success with that. We’ve made a fast conversion toward that, and I think we’re still evolving toward that.”
“Carol has completely transformed our training and development infrastructure here at GAO,” said Sallyanne Harper, chief administrative officer and CFO and a member of GAO’s executive committee. “CPL is a critical value-added component in the accomplishment of GAO’s mission and the enhancement of both our performance and our productivity.”
Willett pointed out that making government work in ways that properly reflect national priorities and do not waste taxpayer dollars is a substantial challenge that requires an educated and ethical workforce. Yet many agencies in the federal government, the largest employer in the United States, do not have a CLO at present, nor do they make any great distinction between learning and training, she said. “A number of years ago, as annuity systems were crashing, Congress passed a law that said every federal agency needs to have a chief financial officer. Then, we all got focused on the baby boomers and the fact that a significant part of the workforce is entering retirement age, so Congress passed a law that said federal agencies needed to have a chief human capital officer, part of whose mandate was to deal with succession planning and continuity of operations. I’m wondering what it’s going to take before we see a mandate to have a chief learning officer.”
–Brian Summerfield, email@example.comFiled under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Technology