Is the Biden administration's management agenda getting back on track?

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On the federal contracting front, reforms seem to be working better in practice than in theory.

I have in general been underwhelmed by the Biden administration's approach to management improvement in government. In the contracting area, where I have been interested for decades, the administration has stated it seeks "improvements in the federal acquisition system to strengthen the U.S. domestic manufacturing base, support American workers, lead by example toward sustainable climate solutions, and create opportunities for underserved communities." I have nothing against such goals, but there is something key missing from them—to deliver better value for taxpayers and agency missions through the procurement system. 

In the most-recent PMA update, just published, the administration states that "cross-agency teams continued to develop and refine their action plans to advance sustainability and equity priorities for the nation through the federal acquisition and financial assistance systems." Better value from contracting is again notable for its absence.

I do want to note two pieces of better news, however. I recently spoke with a senior civil servant contracting professional who is involved with the activities of the Chief Acquisition Officers Council. From our conversation, I got the impression that—as happens in government with some frequency—the system is working better in practice than in theory. 

Moving away from the goals the administration has enunciated (what my source called the "more lofty goals") to what is actually being worked on, they have chosen priorities "we felt we could directly impact." 

It was nice to see these priorities were listed as "improving hiring and retention, modernization of procurement certifications," and working to get the frontline workforce "good managers and coaches." Each of these actually relates to the performance of the procurement system. Talking with frontline contracting people, "we heard loud and clear that new folks want to network with people going through the same experiences and training. We hadn't been pushing that, and we've started to." 

A typical CAO Council meeting is apparently one-third updates on administration policy issues—both sustainability and climate in procurement and also labor issues such as wages for contractor employees—one-third updates from senior procurement leaders and one-third reports from frontline staff in agencies on innovations they are working on. (I was pleased to see this feature, which I introduced many years ago as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, was still around, or had come back after a hiatus under Trump.)

A second piece of good news is that there is actually something happening with the administration's customer experience initiative announced in a late 2021 executive order. All too often in government, initiatives get announced with fanfare, there is a press event and some coverage in the trade press, and then they disappear into the ether.  The initiative involved "streamlining service delivery for five life experiences"—childbirth, early childhood, disaster recovery, financial shocks and applying for government benefits. 

It impressed me that the participants used the agile development approach of  user-centered design in their work, spending a very large proportion of their time on interviewing customers and developing nine actions they explicitly called pilot projects, suggesting further iterative change. And the solutions they developed achieved an admirable level of granularity—for example, they discovered (I would say a bit to my surprise) that many customers preferred text messaging to other forms of communication. And they looked for practical ways that agencies could reduce the number of forms applicants would need to fill out by consolidating information across several existing forms into one.

I like it when government gets away from grand declarations and into the implementation weeds. That's what these customer service folks seem to be doing, and I commend them.