The jobs of politically appointed executives leading U.S. federal government agencies are typically seen as being mostly about policy and politics, not internal management and organizational performance. In this paper, we do in-depth interviews with ten subcabinet leaders identified by government experts as having done an outstanding job improving their agency’s performance and a randomly selected “control group” of ten additional executives. We find evidence that, at least as of the beginning of this century, the proposition that subcabinet leaders are engaged only minimally in management is not generally true. Many, both outstanding executives and “controls,” can discuss management issues at a high level of detail. For example, nineteen out of twenty could name at least one specific performance measure they personally followed (most could name far more than one), and all twenty could name a specific area where they had personally worked to achieve efficiency savings in the agency’s budget. We also find some evidence of greater attention to management among the outstanding executives than the others, though we are far less-confident about our findings showing differences between the two groups than on those showing similarities.
Kelman, Steven, Ron Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and Sarah Taylor. "Management Matters (For Them): Is There a New Normal for Federal Subcabinet Leaders?" HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP14-044, September 2014.