Partnership for Public Service's Max Stier on Using Data as a "Road Map" to Improve Government

Partnership for Public Service's Max Stier on Using Data as a "Road Map" to Improve Government

May 08, 2024
Max Stier and Paul Decker profile images

The latest episode of Mathematica’s On the Evidence podcast features Max Stier, the president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. Stier discusses the central role that data and research play in supporting his organization’s mission to make the federal government more effective.

“As a management tool, [data] can do amazing things,” Stier says on the episode. “It can highlight where people are succeeding and where they’re not, and then it can provide a road map for the investments that should be made to improve the performance of government.”

The partnership gathers data on political appointee positions that go unfilled, employee engagement and satisfaction at federal agencies, Americans’ trust in government, and other areas related to a well-functioning federal workforce.

The episode comes during Public Service Recognition Week (May 5–11), which is also when the partnership announces finalists for its Service to America Medals. These annual awards celebrate extraordinary leadership by career federal employees.

Federal leaders “are surrounded by an ecosystem to find problems,” Stier says on the podcast. “Whether it’s inspectors general or media or congressional oversight, the large balance of attention is paid to what’s broken rather than what’s working that actually might be a solution set for what is broken.” One way the Partnership is trying to shift the focus to solutions, he explains, is by sharing positive stories about innovative federal employees whose work has improved people’s lives.

For the episode, Stier sits down with Mathematica President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Decker to talk about using data to improve government, enhancing data literacy among federal workers, measuring and rebuilding trust in government, the power of employee recognition, and more.

Watch the full episode.

View transcript

We need to modernize our government; but we need to, in my view, remodel our government, not burn it down. I think burning it down doesn't help anybody. It is actually incredibly dangerous for our position in the world and in our desire for continued success as a nation. I've always been a data person. I think there are data people and story people. I think stories are a form of evidence itself; but in this instance, stories are more powerful in actually helping shape a different narrative about what actually our government is made of.


I'm J.B. Wogan from Mathematica, and welcome back to On the Evidence.

On this episode, we have a very special guest, Max Stier, the founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Mathematica is a long-time financial supporter of the Partnership, which is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that strives to make the Federal Government more effective. Data and research play a key in how the Partnership delivers on its mission, which Max talks about on the episode.

Another way that Max's team works to build a better government is by formally recognizing excellence in the federal workforce through its Service to America Medals program, better known as the Sammies. This episode is dropping the same week that the Partnership is announcing the finalists for the Sammies in 2024. It's also Public Service Recognition Week, which is a time to say thank you to public servants in federal, state, and local governments around the country.

For this episode, Mathematica's President and CEO Paul Decker is stepping as the guest host. Max and Paul have a few things to talk about; namely, using data to improve government, enhancing data literacy among federal workers, improving employee engagement in federal agencies, measuring and rebuilding trust in government, changing the perception of public service, and supporting a smooth transition between presidential administrations.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.


Max, welcome to On the Evidence.


Thank you so much, Paul. It's a real pleasure to have this conversation with you, and I want to start on my side by saying thank you for your years and years of support of our work and, even more important, the years and years and years of amazing work that Mathematica has been doing on behalf of the public for the Federal Government and beyond.


Thank you, Max, and we're honored to be participants in the program.

Max, I noted in some of my reading that the author Michael Lewis wrote this book, The Fifth Risk, that you might be the American with the greatest understanding of how the U.S. Government works. So first question, is that true; and second, how did you get there? What generated your interest in government work that led up to where you are now?


So first piece, very easy, hyperbole. There are many, many, many people who understand the government better than I do; and I learn from them every day. Then how I got here, hopefully it's not the end of the road; this is still the long journey. It probably started back where I grew up in Iowa, where certainly politics and government were ever-present in the communities that I lived in; and I always thought that government was a fundamental institution that was essential to making our world a better place.

So I have from a very early age been concerned about the quality of our government -- sounds crazy, but it's true -- and have had just many opportunities along my career trajectory that have enabled me to dig in deeper. There was no master plan to do this, but the road just led me to where I am right now.


Okay, Max, you just triggered a detour because you said you grew up in Iowa. Where in Iowa did you grow up?


So I grew up in a suburb of Iowa City called Coralville, Iowa. It's better known as the basic home of University of Iowa, and best known by Caitlin Clark in today's world.


Okay, well, you and I grew up a few hundred miles from each other because I grew up in Jacksonville, Illinois--


Wow, okay.


...which is a small town in the middle of farmland in central Illinois.


There we go. So I believe that the Midwestern ethic is a good one. People are thoughtful and kind, and it's a good culture.


Yeah, that's great.

So for listeners who aren't familiar with the Partnership for Public Service that you lead, could you just tell us a bit about the Partnership and how it got started.


Absolutely, and it's the part and parcel of that first question you asked. We have one tool for collective action in a society that has the imprimatur of the public and taxpayer resources behind it, and that's our Federal Government. There are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations or thereabouts -- I should probably be more precise in talking to you -- but hopefully order of magnitude, right? We're really it doing what we do. Our theory of the case is if we make our Federal Government more effective, we will raise all boats. So all of the different issues that we care about --from our own physical safety to our environment to poverty, you name it -- our government is really a critical actor. So our theory is if we can help it perform better, then all those other issues will also be improved.

We started some 23 years ago. There was a gentleman by the name of Samuel Heyman, who had been in the Government himself coming out of law school and got very concerned later on in life that the same talent that had come into government which he was a newly-minted law graduate in the early 1960s didn't look to government as an opportunity in the same way. So I met up with him, and he and I shook hands on starting this organization; and he provided the financial support for us to get going in a big way. We learned very quickly that getting talent in was important; but at the end of the day, having an organization that retained talent, that used talent effectively and was well-led, was essential to the end outcomes that he wanted and that we were designed to do.

So we learned over time that our mission is broader and is really fundamentally about our tagline being, "better government and a stronger democracy."


There's a certain relationship between the objectives of Mathematica and the objectives of the Partnership in the sense that we're both involved in the mission of improving the effectiveness of government. In Mathematica's case, to help assess and improve the way in which programs operate, and it overlaps with your mission in the way that I described. What are the specific ways in which the Partnership is striving to make the Federal Government more effective, and how are you going about that mission?


Yes, and I agree with you entirely. I think that what Mathematica does is an essential element of effective government and good outcomes for the public.

Our approach is really threefold on the programmatic side. We focus on that first proposition that Sam Heyman had, which is getting the best talent into the organization and creating an environment that will enable it to perform at its highest level -- so strong employee morale, et cetera.

Second, a heavy emphasis on the power of good leadership, and that plays out in a variety of ways for us; and that includes executive education for leaders in our government. We train about 10,000 career executives a year. It's also about the leadership of the political team. So we focus on the -- we have a Center for Presidential Transition. We focus on the handoff of power from one administration to another or a first term to a second term and what that process needs to look like, as well as how do those new leaders need to contextualize their leadership skills in government. So again, it's career leadership training. It's the Center for Presidential Transition.

It's also convening of leaders across government. So one of the things that we find is that the problems of the day usually require multiagency, multilevel of government, multisector response; and that connective tissue is missing often -- so creating relationship and connectivity between the general councils across government or the heads of management or the heads of public affairs or the DEIA officers. So we organize a whole set of different communities to create that connectivity. So that's the bucket of leadership work. Again, it's talent; it's leadership.

Then, the third piece for us is thinking about the relationship between our society writ large and our government. Our theory is for a healthy society, for a healthy democracy, we need a trustworthy government; and we need a trusted in government; and they're related but not the same thing. So we do a lot more work of late on what it takes to build that relationship of trust between the public and its government/our government.


Yeah, so since this is the On the Evidence podcast, I figure we better spend some time talking about data and research. I know that data is an important part of what you do in the Partnership. Could you talk a little bit about how data figures into your work at the Partnership and talk about the kinds of data that you collect and how you use those data to support the organization's mission?


Absolutely, and I think it is definitely, if I think about the arc of the last 20 years of setting up and working at the Partnership, the rise of awareness and the improved capability of evidence-based decision-making and the use of data I think is one of the most important phenomena that we've seen. Plainly with the advent of AI, again, data is central there as well. So this is, I think, a very important aspect of performance of any organization, especially an organization as complex and as important as our Federal Government is.

So for the Partnership itself, it plays out in a lot of different ways; and I'll be very concrete about this. The program we do that is probably the flagship exemplar of this is our Best Places to Work rankings where, again, part of our theory was we can't brute force the improvement of our government. We have to find places where we can actually have very high leverage; and to do that, we need to understand what is the root cause of the challenges for our government.

One of those is the leadership challenge. You have short-term leaders not aligned to the long-term needs of the organizations they're responsible for; and so you have leaders that, frankly, don't mind the store. They don't take ownership. They don't do what you do for Mathematica. You are thinking all the time about your talent and what you need to get the right talent and keep the talent, et cetera. That dynamic is not occurring at the level that it needs to in our Federal Government. So that was a quick detour.

But the second aspect is the old saw that you can't manage what you don't measure. Since the Federal Government is dealing with public goods as opposed to financial returns, there's an enormous challenge in getting real-time-performance information. So our insight was that employee attitudes are actually a very strong proxy for performance; and you can see that in many, many, many studies in the for-profit private sector. In fact, you can actually see that in the public sector, although that's work that we've been doing a fair bit of.

The theory then is -- and this is something we started very early on -- is we got a law passed that requires every federal agency to conduct an employee survey. The results of the 2023 surveys will be coming out shortly here, and we have over a million federal employees who are responding to this. So we're able to look at the Federal Government writ large and, even more importantly, break down our Federal Government with incredible data by not just agency but by subcomponents and agencies. The agencies themselves can look at even smaller units.

What that does is give leaders a road map for what's working and what's not and where they need to focus. It is an incredibly powerful tool that is all built on data that enables you to know where there are problems and also where there are successes. It's called Best Places for a reason. I can't help but give this story. Our first rankings were done in 2003; and at that point, this is sort of iteration number one, we only had one list of all of the agencies. This was pre the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; and I'm saying this because FEMA was the bottom-ranked agency. I have a strong memory of an interview that was done with the head of FEMA at that time, a now more infamous head, Director Brown. He was asked, "Well, what's going on with FEMA?"

His answer was, "It's just a few disgruntled employees." What was so sad about that is you didn't have to wait but two years in 2005, and you had Hurricane Katrina. You could have predicted that FEMA would not be ready to respond to a crisis by what the employees were saying, and that blinking red light was ignored. So again, the data is powerful. Used as a management tool, it can do amazing things. It can highlight where people are succeeding and where they're not, and it can provide a road map for the investments that should be made to improve the performance of government.

That adds direct impact to the customers. We've done a study of looking at the VA Hospital systems across the country and their employee attitudes and the veterans' experience and nurse attrition and all sorts of things. You see incredibly tight correlation between those two things for a reason. So anyway, that's an example of our use of data; but it plays out in all of our work. I mean, it's so fundamental; and the expertise that you have at Mathematica, we need more of. There's a great need for it.


I appreciate that, and I think it comes through very clearly that data and evidence are a fundamental part of how your organization operates. I think there's also the issue more generally about the government and how do data and evidence function inside the government.

A friend of mine, Ron Haskins, who was on Capitol Hill at the time, he used to have a presentation that was focused on the factors that influence legislation and policy decisions. He had a certain graphic associated with that that was a pie chart, and each of the influencing factors would be a different slice of the pie chart, depending on how influential he assessed them to be. The slice that represented research and evidence -- he had a very small number attached to it. I don't remember what it was, but I think it was in the single digits in terms of percentages; and yet, that was a while ago.

So you've been in Washington a long time and are aware of the trends in Washington. I'm curious as to whether you think research and evidence is playing a bigger role over time with the Federal Government and where you see the most meaningful progress in terms of the use of evidence by federal officials or policymakers.


I think it's certainly the case, in my view, that there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of decision-making. I do believe that at least at a sort of macro level there's acceptance of the fact that evidence-based decision-making is the preferred approach. I don't know that it plays out in all of the individual decisions that get made, but I think that's also a product of using evidence and then figuring out how is it that you improve the uptake.

I'll give two examples of that; and one of those is the one I just described, the Best Places to Work rankings. The underlying data come from the surveys that the Federal Government actually does, the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey, as I noted; and then some other agencies do it for themselves, and they give us their data. But if all we did was publish that, it wouldn't have the impact that it has. It's because we've packaged it as a ranking, it's -- for lack of a better descriptor -- I would say it's the U.S. News effect. That's what gives it its stickiness. So I would say data alone won't take you there, but understanding how to communicate around that data in a way to create stickiness is how you succeed.

The second example would be we produce with the Washington Post a phenomenal dataset on all of the Senate-confirmed leadership positions in our government, and we track what's happening with all of them. The Washington Post, as our partner, puts it up on their website, which draws a lot of eyeballs. The focus that is occurring now on how broken our system is, is only there because the data are there -- like that's it, but the data alone didn't get us there. It's the fact that we have easy-to-use graphics, we have the Washington Post platform for pushing it out, and we look for every angle we can to explain why people should care about it.

So I think in any world, you just have to understand the incentives, the ecosystem, and then therefore how you maximize your chance for attention. I think what is certainly true is that our world has become so much more crowded and more fast-paced; so you have to continually be thoughtful about how you break through, how you create prioritization, how you create continuity of attention on something so that it's not just the latest flavor of the day. So I think evidence and data are important in figuring that out. It's like it's the meta system that you wrap around whatever data that you have. I think that's always been true; it's just much more complicated.

But at the end of the day, I believe that there are a lot of cool things that are happening only because there's a better appreciation. A lot of it is also about putting different datasets together. That connectivity of datasets, I think, is also where a lot of the very cool insights and observations are coming from and a lot of change is going to happen. So I'm an optimist about where we're headed, and I realize it requires constant investment in trying to get people to pick up the information and to use it and to understand what it takes to make it valuable to them.


Well, I share your optimism; and I think it's a great point, and I'm so glad you made it -- the distinction between generating the data and evidence versus making sure that data and evidence are influential in decision-making. It's certainly something that we've spent a lot of time reflecting on during the 36 years I've been at Mathematica. The way I think of it is it's not enough just to produce the data or to produce the research. We have to take responsibility for making sure that those data, those evidence, are influential with decision-makers. We call that getting closer to the decision-makers in our work; and sometimes the way we get closer to the decision-makers is to engage those decision-makers directly in a dialog, explaining what we think the implications of the data and the research are.

Other times, it's more like you said. We have to approach it indirectly by publicizing the results of the research and generating attention in that way, but it's a critically important part of the process. I like your reference to the ecosystem because that's much the way we're thinking about it these days -- is how do we manage the ecosystem in a way that plays into that objective of trying to influence decisions.


That's very thoughtful and, I think, so important. I think it's not an intuitive ecosystem either. So I think there's real expertise around how to manage it, and it's changing. The speed of change I think is also, again, looking -- it's almost trite but it's true, and it has great consequence.


We've talked a little bit about perceptions of the government. I think it's no secret that public perceptions of government and trust in it have waned over the years, and that's something I know that the Partnership is tracking closely. So what's the latest on how people feel about the government, and what might help improve those public perceptions of government?


I noted and appreciate you coming back to this, but that's the third priority for us as an organization. This is the most recent work we've been doing, and I would say it's basically over the last three years.

We started with research. We started by asking the question, "What is this data at play and why?" One of the more interesting insights that we've generated, and there are a lot of them, is that when you say, "the government" or the "Federal Government," what the American public largely thinks about is bickering politicians in Washington. So there are actually a couple of the questions that ask, "Do you trust the government" are stated "Do you trust the government in Washington," like a couple of the standard instruments. Once you add those two words, "in Washington," you can forget any sense of positivity at all. You've put the kiss of death on the whole endeavor. So part of it is even just recognizing the bias created by the instruments that are being used to ask questions.

So what we have also found is that the American public actually wants a government that is made up of professionals, experts, nonpartisan individuals, who are there for the public good -- not for the private interests. So the battle from the 19th century over, "Do you want the spoil system or not," the public categorically, 90+%, "No way, we don't want that," and for good reason.

Now, what they also don't believe they have is currently a government that provides all that to them. Part of the reason for that, not the entire reason, is that they don't know their government and the stories of civil servants. We talk about data. I've always been a data person. I think there are data people and story people. I think stories are a form of evidence itself, but I think in this instance stories are more powerful in actually helping shape a different narrative about what actually our government is made of.

So you know this; you've come to our Service to America Medals program, where we identify the most innovative federal employees and we honor them. We use that as a platform for telling the story of our government. We need to do more of that. Federal agencies do not think about their brand. The leadership is in short-term; they don't make those investments, and they are surrounded by an ecosystem, again, to find problems. So whether it's inspector generals or media or congressional oversight, the large balance of attention is, A, to what's broken rather than to what's working that actually might be a solution set for what is broken.

So that is a macro we're trying to change. The way you change that in many ways is by helping share some of those positive stories, and I think that is truly fundamental. It is also the case that we believe that there are real changes that need to take place to make the Federal Government a better place. I talked about the survey. Federal employees themselves think like, for example, the performance management system is broken. So we need to modernize our government; but we need to, in my view, remodel our government, not burn it down.

I think burning it down doesn't help anybody. It is actually incredibly dangerous for our position in the world and our desire for continued success as a nation. But we do need to modernize it, and we need to have leaders who are willing to invest in long-term fixes because, like any organization, the quick change isn't going to get us there. Hopefully that's a response to what you're asking, but that's how we think about the trust question. Again, I said earlier, we want a combination of a trustworthy government and a trusted government; and you need investments in both to make them happen.


Max, you mentioned the Service to America Medal, which is also known as the Sammies, which are basically awards that highlight innovative and effective programs and the leaders throughout the government. Having attended the presentation of the Sammies a few different times, I can say it's the Washington version of glamour end of your organization. It's also very emotional in terms of the leadership that's provided in the government and the sacrifices that people make in providing that leadership.

When you read or you hear about the folks who are involved, who are highlighted through the Sammies or nominated for the Sammies, and you hear about their work, it's easy to feel better about the work of the government and the impact it can have, which I think is a testament to your organizing those awards in the first place.

But I'm curious as to what you've learned with over 20 years of observing the nominees being celebrated at that session. What has that process, that recognition, taught you about the work of government as you've organized that effort and observed it operate in front of you?


There's so many things that I've learned, both sort of micro in terms of specific issues as well as macro. So I'm trying to choose which of these that I highlight. Probably the most important -- there's a lot to say about federal employees themselves, which is they are amazing people and modest in a crazy, great way. But the most important systemic issue that I would highlight is the power of recognition and the importance of recognition. We see that, again, from the data from the survey about when you look at morale in the workforce, the question about, "Do you think your good work is recognized," is actually quite important to that underlying morale.

But the systemic impact is very powerful. I'll just, again by anecdote, share what I mean by that. A while back, we -- not even, I don't think they won -- but one of our finalists was a group of federal employees who worked in the Embassy in Beijing. They decided -- again, data story -- that it was important to share with the American expat community in Beijing the pollution levels, the particulate levels in the air, because they realized that it was impacting the health of Americans that were there.

So they had pollution indicators like on the grounds of the Embassy, and they started publishing the daily data on this. My understanding is that was actually a contributor to the larger environmental movement in China because that data then came out, et cetera. But the recognition piece I wanted to share is that those same people thought, "You know what, we did it in Beijing; shouldn't we do it in other embassies?" They couldn't get any attention and support from leadership at the State Department to do that until they were recognized at the Sammies program. Then, the leadership are like, wow, this is a pretty cool program. We should be doing this in other places. You see that the ability for good ideas to spread is actually fueled by recognition. So there's individual power to it, but there's also larger organizational power to it.

One of our goals organizationally is to create a recognition culture in our government. Again, this is the rationale for why. So that was a very powerful lesson, to see how much impact the recognition did. It wasn't like a night and done. It actually spilled over in all kinds of very positive ways to the benefit of the world really in terms of the impact that Federal Government can have.


In your discussion about how federal agencies can communicate better, you have eight tips that you've specified on how agencies can communicate better to rebuild trust in government; and one of those tips we've already touched on, which is about storytelling in a way that uses compelling data about the agency's impact and the Sammies as part of the larger story there. Is there -- you've touched a little bit on one story that you've highlighted. Are there other stories from the Sammies that you can share with us to illustrate that point, and how do you connect the role that data plays to how to be an effective storyteller in that process?


So there are many. When you said eight, I thought, wow, I think I can come up with more than eight. But I'm not sure which specific list, and I'm sure that's a more thoughtful list. But, look, I think one of the more interesting connection points, and I raised it earlier, is this connection between employee experience and customer experience. There are a lot of different -- especially at the VA.

The VA is probably -- I hate that word -- it is the exemplar agency on sort of customer experience delivery and certainly change. It started with leadership -- Bob McDonald, who was the Secretary and came out of the private sector from Procter & Gamble. He was like, "We need this to be a customer-focused agency." I think that was an incredibly important directive and strategic focus point, and the way to get there really was -- a lot of it was driven by data. So lots of different stories and Sammies stories come out of that.

There was a hospital system in the Midwest, which was one of the most troubled and had all sorts of terrible stories affiliated with it. The leader there realized that the way to turn it around was to turn around the employee experience and took that specific hospital system from near bottom in the VA to top quartile and saw a total turnaround in terms of the experience provided to veterans and then was promoted into running the larger whole system in the area. That's the positive story that you want to actually see happen, and I think you want to find the leaders that are actually doing that effective, innovative activity and use them as role models and move them to the places where you actually need the most help and learn from them.

All that insight -- like there's so many ways in which our government is made up of field organizations that are the point of intersection with the large part of what the agencies do and then central headquarters. There's not as much learning as there really should be from that field system about how to treat the larger system. The example I just provided you, Vicki Brahm was the woman's name who was the leader there. More of that should happen.

But the Sammies are replete; and anyone who wants to see this, I think there were 750 or close to finalists and honorees that we've had over the years. There are just a bunch of these stories that are phenomenal. You can learn from them, and all of them are specific people who can be learned from. That's an asset we need to grow and use more wisely.


One of the recent set of awardees -- it might have been the most recent -- included the folks at the State Department that oversee negotiations around freeing American hostages overseas. What struck me was the human aspect of it. We know the government is doing this. We hear about it all the time in the news, but here were the people who actually make it happen. In this case, hearing them tell the story about the kind of commitment that it took to do this from people who are relatively young even, I just -- you know, you find it hard to believe that there are people that you attach to these responsibilities that we hear about in the news every night and that people's lives and freedom are in the balance.


Yes, I agree with you. Again, it's the power of a story. You're right, and they were in the Emerging Leader category. Unfortunately, we have a significant and very important gap in generational diversity in our government. It's only 7% of the federal workforce under the age of 30; and that number drops to 4% if you look at IT professionals in our Federal Government, which is going the wrong way plainly. But amongst those 7% and 4%, there are unbelievably amazing people.

I said there are so many different lessons. I talked about the power of recognition. The other thing that I found fascinating, we did a study once with the Hay Group, which had done a lot of interviews -- hundreds of thousands if not millions of interviews -- of private sector innovators to understand what was important for innovation. We partnered with them to do a study of what the differences were between public sector and private sector innovation. They looked at the Sammies cohort as their dataset for innovators in the Federal Government. They walked away saying number one, innovators in the federal space have all the qualities that the private sector innovators have plus two of them. One of them we talked about earlier is that they're there for the public good. Their motivation is to make the world a better place for all of us.

The second, and this is the one that I found to be really insightful and powerful, is that they -- in the private sector context, if you ran into the kind of challenges, the system challenges that you face in the government, you'd be like, "Too bad, too sad, I'm leaving this organization. I’m going to another organization, or I'm going to start my own." The difference is in the Federal Government, those people stick to it. They make it work despite the system, and that's both difficult and fundamental to the success that they have and that then we benefit from as a society.

It is true. For anybody listening to this, there's no bigger stage to make a difference than the Federal Government; and it ain't easy work, but the payoff is huge.


One of the areas that you talked about that the Partnership works on is providing training or guidance on leadership for federal leaders. Part of that no doubt is how those leaders can use data more effectively in managing their programs. Use of data in the Federal Government has certainly improved since the passage of the Evidence Act, but I wondered about kind of the evolving role for more and better training on how to use the data in that endeavor.


It's a very timely question. It's a big government. There's a lot of stuff going on that I don't know about, and we are now -- literally now -- piloting a new curriculum around data and understanding data for our leadership folks. You get this. We have a double bottom line. We are a nonprofit, meaning that our goal is a public good, which is a more effective government and then therefore a better democracy; but we need the resources to be able to do it. We had a donor who was very keen on data, and so we agreed to do two things. We started a set of internships, data interns for federal agencies; and we're piloting modules for our leadership work around data understanding.

So plainly, there are aspects of this that have already been baked into the work that we're doing but not at the scale and extent that we're trying to do right now. I do think it is, in today's world, a core competence for leaders to understand not at enormous depth but understand in a broad way the importance of data, how to use it, where to get information, and what approaches they should be taking to achieve better mission outcomes. That requires a real investment. So we are sort of front edge at trying to get better at just what you're highlighting right now.


To what extent are your efforts in that regard changing the way in which agencies go about providing their own guidance on leadership in their offices?


So just to be fully transparent, not yet. I hope we get there because, again, as I said, brute force isn't the way we're going to make this. We have the leverage, and part of the way we do that is by focusing on leaders themselves. So it's a smaller footprint that we have to touch than every employee. But the hope will be -- I mean, more generally our hope is that our leadership model gets adopted -- that there's a common leadership model across our Federal Government and, frankly, maybe beyond that. Part of that would be the importance of understanding data and the decision-making around evidence that is required to be an effective leader. But we're not there yet. I would not pretend to be influencing the broader system in the ways that we hope to get to.


Max, are there any new -- are there any frontiers in terms of the work of the Partnership, new areas that you want to be getting into over the next year or so?


Yes, and it's quite related to data for sure. So probably the biggest -- and it's not entirely new to us -- is AI. That won't come as a surprise to you. We started five-plus years ago a program to upscale the senior executive service around AI -- obviously, predating the large language models and all the national language stuff that's occurring today. Actually, Satya Nadella came out himself to launch this program with us, which is very cool; and he was very impressive in his curiosity about the government. I really admire him for what he's done at Microsoft as well as his interest. We've since started working with Google and a lot of other actors, and we're going to up the ante in our game here. So we will be taking a much more wholistic approach to AI.

What we're finding is that all the communities that I talked about earlier that we lead, they've got a gazillion questions about AI. "Gazillion" is probably not a very accurate number here, but the point hopefully was taken. In our leadership work, we have to be not even at Version 2.0 but 3.0 in terms of upskilling and scaling the connection to the SES around AI. We're looking to bring in -- I've talked about our federal internship program -- a lot of AI talent into government at the entry side as well. We are looking for expertise to help the myriad of communities that we're working with and general councils, et cetera, around AI. We're looking at the system reforms that are necessary, recognition around it.

So we've got a whole sort of comprehensive approach towards how we can be a partner on AI issues in the spaces that we're in already. We are not trying to be something we're not already. So that will be, I think, the most significant investment we're making externally -- or rather internally on the AI side. Externally, we're building on our trust work. One element of that that I'm very excited by and I will also say it's both -- we've been working at it but it's still early days -- it's customer experience. So I talked about the employee voice in our Best Places to Work rankings. We believe that even though that's deeply connected to customer experience, we should have some kind of vehicle like Best Places around the customer voice.

So we are trying to develop that in two different places; one, the customer voice inside our government. So you think about all the support functions and how do you create a customer culture. You need data and repeat data to make that happen, as well as the external voice, the larger public. So those are some of the areas that we're -- I'm excited by most. But there's a lot of stuff happening that I don't know anything about too, which is all good. But there's more to do than we have resource to do, so we kind of think smartly about where we can have best impact.


Max, are you looking at all at how your efforts are impacting the flow of new public servants into the agencies? How do students these days feel about public service?


So it is the first priority we have. It comes back to that Sam Heyman story. I would say that we've made headway in various aspects of what we do. Just to be honest about it -- very, very direct about it -- we have not made the progress we need to make there. What's most interesting to me -- and again, this is a basis of this is why evidence is so important -- is that the primary issue isn't the interest level of students. It matters, but there are actually four different sets of barriers to recruiting that next generation into government.

It begins on the government side that that demand signal is not adequately represented. Most federal agencies are not actually looking for young talent. If you look at the average age of new hire, it's quite high. I'd like to do a study -- again, I'd like to find the resources -- of USA jobs to see how many jobs are actually entry-level jobs. I will tell you anecdotally, it’s not that many. So the first order of business is helping our federal leaders understand that having that next generation into government is actually fundamental to current health and capability as well as future health, and that's fixing that 7% number or 4% number.

The second barrier is that the investments are not being made in management capability to create an environment that retains that talent. So it requires different skills and capabilities to manage the next generation of talent.

The third is the hiring process is deeply broken, and it's not just speed of hire. It's the assessment of hires. That's why student interns are so important because there's no better way to assess talent than actually getting a chance to work with them. No test or interview or recommendation can be as strongly correlated to success than actually having 8 weeks or 10 weeks to work with someone and then it’s the interest level.

So really to succeed here, you need to deal with that whole series of challenges; and that's a lot. Taking off one piece, like interesting more talent -- I think you need to do it because you need to force the system, but there are also some unintended downsides to that too because you could turn talent off that gets interested that either it can't get through the process because it's ridiculous or arrives and aren't treated well or there just aren't the jobs for them.

So that's a long dataset but, again, it's about evidence. It's like this is our theory of what the problem is, and we have to develop programming answers to that whole set of things. If you only understand it as one of those issues, you're not likely to succeed in any consequential way in the real change you want.


Let me ask you about one more area that you and I have talked about a number of times in different settings, and that's recognizing the challenge that the Federal Government faces when we have a change in administration. So all of the federal agencies in a change in administration get new leadership, bring in new priorities that reflect the priorities of the political party that they represent, and that can be jarring if you're trying to run an organization with some continuity. Can you describe what the trend has been there, say over the last -- well, the last 25 years, the time that you've been overseeing the Partnership. Are we doing better in terms of that transition and for entering administrations to be prepared for that transition?


So I would say -- and, again, I think one of the biggest risks we face in terms of the work we're trying to do is painting such a bleak picture that people run away and say, ugh, throw up their hands, "There's nothing we can do about this." One of the answers I would offer is that then you might as well give up on our society. I recognize that these problems are big, difficult things that you may say are really hard to change; but everyone should understand what's at stake.

You can move to a different country if you want; but if you're going to stay here, having our government work is actually fundamental to our safety and to our success. So I say all that as a precursor to say in some ways, things have gotten worse. So the time it takes to confirm leaders has increased, doubled from the sort of Biden time to Bush time. The number of Senate-confirmed positions has increased, even though there was a time in which we were involved in where some of them were reduced.

What has improved -- and I think this is something that should give people hope -- is that the whole question of the importance of focusing not only on winning an election but actually focusing on having the capability to run the government effectively if you win -- I think there's been a sea change with respect to that. I'd like to take some consequential credit for that. I think the work we've done here in creating our Center for Presidential Transition has really changed the expectations that political campaigns have, presidential campaigns have, on the need to invest in significant and public efforts to be ready to govern if you are going to win.

Now one of the interesting things is that while I say we've made significant headway here, it's really been with the challengers. What's interesting in this cycle and of heavy focus for us is trying to help focus attention on the need for an incumbent president to actually engage in some very similar transition planning as a challenger needs to do for the possibility of winning a second term. The historical record is very poor on this. I don't think any incumbent president has actually approached a second term with the discipline of investment that is warranted.

Again, the data tell a story here of importance, which is you see phenomenal turnover and usually the unplanned turnover of a leadership in the second term. What you don't often see is learning from that first term about what you did well and what you could do better and using that as the basis for improved performance in the second term. So there's really important opportunity here for an incumbent president to do a lot better and to achieve a lot more.

You typically see a fifth year as sort of a drought of productivity, similar to a first year of a challenger who is not prepared, when it should be the reverse. You have such assets that you can deploy to make it work even better, and that has not yet happened. I'm hopeful that, again, whether it's a Trump second term or a Biden second term, that there's a lot better transition planning that takes place and that part of the investment is around improved running of the government. You can have all the policy differences you want, but you need to invest in the capability in the institution to actually make those policies real. That's the space we're trying to help in.


That's very interesting, and I really value your insight as somebody who's studied this closely.


Studied is less than just lived it.



Right, right, so this is good time to be conducting this podcast because the first week of May is Public Service Recognition Week. So it's a time for all of us to recognize the work of government and thank those who do it. So is there one government employee that you'd like to thank this week?


So I could say my wife, who is a federal judge; and I certainly thank her. I think she's an extraordinary public servant and deserving of lots of things for all kinds of reasons.

You know, there's so many. So I'm going to do something that may be a little counterintuitive. There's somebody who I admired when I was first in government in HUD. One of the career employees there was a woman by the name of Deborah Benson, and she was the head of Public Housing and was the person that everyone in the building went to whenever they had not just a question about expertise but a problem that they needed solving. She was extraordinary in her ability to get stuff done -- again, despite all the rules, like so again the special secret sauce that the best civil servants have, and with a heart of gold. So I admire her so much.

She has since passed, but she is someone who I think about when I think about like the prototypical just extraordinary civil servant. When you asked me that question, that's the first person that came to mind. So, yeah, that would be who I would say thank you to and to her family and friends, et cetera.


That's great, Max, and I join you in thanking her.

So I admire your work. I wish you continued success with the Partnership for Public Service, and I look forward to the next Sammies event.


Thank you very much. I really appreciate this conversation and having you as a partner in a shared endeavor. We need a lot of partners to make this work.


Cheers, Max.




Thanks to our guest Max Stier, and thanks to Paul Decker for stepping in as the guest host for this episode.

In the show notes, I include links to many of the resources that Max referenced during the episode, including the list of the 2024 finalists for the Sammies.

As always, thank you for listening to another episode of On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. This episode was produced by the inimitable Rick Stoddard. If you liked this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review wherever you listen to podcasts. To catch future episodes of the show, subscribe at

Show notes

Learn more about the Partnership’s Service to America Medals program.

Learn more about the Partnership’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

Explore data from the Partnership on Americans’ level of trust in the federal government.

About the Author

J.B. Wogan

J.B. Wogan

Senior Strategic Communications Specialist
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