Invest in Public Servants Today to Build a More Equitable Safety Net Tomorrow

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the growing movement for stronger partnerships between philanthropy and government, with increasing calls for philanthropy to invest in training government employees and leaders who are in critical positions, help governments identify and attract top talent, and support the creation or expansion of positions that fill specific skill gaps. The critical question for government agencies and foundations seeking to implement this strategy is how to put it into practice. Who are the government employees and leaders in critical positions? What skills do they need to better serve communities now and in the future? And how can government and philanthropy work together to build public servants’ capacity to do more and do better for the communities they serve? 

In February this year, our team set out to explore the opportunity to train public servants in the skills and leadership competencies that we’ve seen enable our clients and partners to deliver better outcomes like living wage jobs, family stability, and recovery from serious mental illness for the people and communities they serve. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we observed that this training and education initiative could be crucial in helping public servants respond in this critical moment. Drawing up our own research, Third Sector’s long experience partnering with government to strengthen the social safety net, and more than fifty interviews with leaders in government, public policy, and executive education, we set out to answer these questions for the COVID era. 

Who are the government employees and leaders in critical positions?

Every industry has signature roles that integrate a wide variety of business functions with a focus on value for the customer - for example, product managers at tech startups, or brand managers for consumer goods companies. In the public sector, these linchpin employees hold a wide variety of titles (program director, contract manager, area director), but what they have in common is serving as the bridge between those who set policy—legislators, commissioners, and agency leaders—and those on the frontlines who implement policy—case workers, counselors, and navigators. Their decisions influence millions of dollars in annual public services funding, yet they remain close enough to day-to-day service delivery to lead continuous improvement practices like analyzing program data, identifying racial disparities, enhancing coordination, and introducing evidence-based services. In this role, we refer to them as Outcomes Managers.

With the right skills, connections, and opportunities, Outcomes Managers serve as catalysts for more efficient, effective, and equitable government. They can be critical change agents, not only strengthening publicly-funded programs, but transforming institutions from the inside out. They understand the ins and outs of their agencies (and the broader systems in which they work), and as career public servants they have the staying power to drive lasting change. Outcomes Managers across the country are hard at work in the COVID-19 era - often with little fanfare or recognition - at institutions ranging from tiny county health departments to vast state agencies. However, given the scale and complexity of the challenges facing our communities, many of these leaders urgently need additional training and support. 

What training do Outcomes Managers need to better serve communities now and in the future? 

The good news is that it’s a specific combination of abilities and experience - more than any special expertise or analytical technique - that will enable Outcomes Managers to meet the challenges they face today. Outcomes Managers will need to analyze outcomes data, advance racial equity, transform service contracts, and lead institutional change, and these four skills should form the core learning agenda for any program or initiative training and supporting these professionals: 

Analyze Outcomes Data

If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it’s that government capacity (or lack of capacity) to work with data, follow the evidence, and make the right decisions has a tremendous impact on people’s lives. This applies not only to the public health crisis facing our communities, but also to the social crisis following close on its heels - unemployment, homelessness, deaths of despair, and fractured families. Outcomes Managers need to integrate and work with administrative and program data, not just to understand the long-term impact of public services, but to adjust and adapt to changing conditions in real time. Our communities need Outcomes Managers who use data to stretch every government dollar for maximum impact during response, recovery, and rebuilding.

Advance Racial Equity

Our country is not only in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color, but also a national reckoning with racism, injustice, and inequality. While data is critically important for improving government effectiveness, so are collaborative relationships between public servants and communities of color that have been left out of decisions that have perpetuated structural racism for generations. These relationships must go beyond empathy and understanding, to include co-creating solutions to intractable social problems. Our communities need Outcomes Managers who engage deeply with activists and communities, understand their lived experiences, and partner with them to undo racism from the ground up. 

Transform Service Contracts

While data and community engagement can illuminate the root causes of social issues, ultimately that understanding must translate into improvements in public services that measurably improve peoples’ lives. Some Outcomes Managers can work within their agencies to strengthen programs and services delivered by government employees, but the majority of changes will require transforming the contracts and systems that government uses to fund and support organizations that provide direct services. Our communities need Outcomes Managers who leverage contracting, incentives, and continuous improvement to get better results. 

Lead Institutional Change 

Sustaining and scaling better results requires corresponding changes in culture, infrastructure, and policy that extend beyond the scope of any single program or contract. Cultivating political will to support these changes is just as important as upgrading data systems or re-writing contracts, and a critical skill for the next generation of public sector leaders. Our communities need Outcomes Managers who influence policymakers, navigate complexity, and build coalitions to transform public agencies from the inside out. 

How can government and philanthropy work together to build public servants’ capacity to do more and do better for the communities they serve? 

Philanthropy can play a critical role in training and supporting Outcomes Managers. With government stretching every dollar in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and budget cuts looming, most public agencies lack the resources to invest in new training programs or professional development. However, we need trained Outcomes Managers right now, as government needs to use data to make the most of limited resources, prioritize racial equity in the midst of a national crisis, adapt services to meet rapidly evolving community needs, and lay the groundwork for stronger, more equitable systems during the recovery. This combination of limited resources and urgent need in the public sector presents a unique opportunity for philanthropic support for Outcomes Manager training to deliver an outsized impact on public agencies and the communities they serve. 

Informed by our interviews and exploratory partnerships in ten states, we propose five principles for government and philanthropy to put this strategy into practice. First, partner with public policy and business schools that have already developed a deep knowledge base and pedagogy around the core skills for outcomes management. Second, invest in government performance experts like Third Sector and the Harvard Government Performance Lab to partner with universities to develop and implement Outcomes Manager training on an accelerated timeline. Third, design programs that create an immediate impact on pressing issues in the COVID-19 era, such as workforce development, public health, and racial justice through experiential learning and hands-on projects. Fourth, require a clear focus on racial equity for pilot programs, both in the training curriculum and the selection criteria for Outcomes Managers. Finally, engage HR and talent leaders at public agencies as key partners to ensure that pilot programs are aligned with the needs of the public sector workforce. 

With these principles as a guide, we envision a national network of Outcomes Management Fellowship programs that train hundreds (and ultimately thousands) of Outcomes Managers every year, establishing a talent pipeline in state and local government. Local and national philanthropy would serve as the catalyst for this network by investing in program development and supporting the initial cohorts of Outcomes Managers, with government contracts replacing philanthropic grants as the fiscal environment improves and training benefits are evaluated and validated. We believe that this is a critical moment to launch this initiative - while we cannot know precisely what challenges the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn will bring for our communities, we do know that our communities need effective Outcomes Managers now more than ever. We can meet this need with a focused investment in training Outcomes Managers to respond to the COVID-19 crisis today, and rebuild a more efficient, effective, equitable safety net tomorrow.