The government management paradox

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COMMENTARY | Change is hard, but agencies can significantly improve their operational performance to deliver on highly complex programs.

How is it that our government has delivered on some of the most impressive successes ever delivered by humankind (mapping the human genome and deploying the global positioning system), yet many agencies struggle to deliver their “core” services in an effective and efficient manner?

We see examples of agencies successfully managing highly complex programs, yet we also see agencies with significant management issues, resulting in, at best, mediocre service to citizens, wasted opportunities, and inefficient operations. And sometimes, such good and bad management examples exist in an agency simultaneously! 

Through my own experiences as chief information officer at the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security, and by studying other examples of successful and failed government programs and operations, I developed an understanding of “what works” in government.

To do this, I first needed to understand the categories that result in performance problems for agencies. It boils down to a combination of factors in four problem categories, which are:

  • Leadership tenure, expertise, and experience
  • Planning and resource alignment
  • Program and operational management and oversight
  • Resilience and security.

Typically, there is not just one problem category that bedevils an agency, as these tend to be multi-faceted and interrelated categories. The complexity of addressing these problem categories is one of the reasons agencies struggle to drive significant improvement.

So, based on my investigations and experiences, I defined eight solution functions that, in combination, best address these four problem categories. These solution functions, described in detail in my book, provide a framework for agency improvement. Some key examples:

People – The solution starts with the employees

People are the most important asset of any organization. Improving a government agency’s effectiveness and efficiency starts with ensuring employees have the needed skills and experience for their positions. Therefore, workforce planning is a crucial element of agency advancement, including understanding the requisite skills and abilities required in a position and providing developmental capabilities through training, mentoring, and on-the-job assignments for agency employees. 

Good governance – Key ingredient in good decision-making

Governance is how an organization functions, and in particular, the processes it uses to make its decisions. But good governance does more than help with good decision-making; it helps drive alignment among key decision-makers in an organization. Good governance requires an approach that brings together the right stakeholders across an agency, including mission and business leadership, along with support functions, including, but not limited to, IT, procurement, finance, and human resources. 

Strategic planning – Beyond a vision and goals

A good strategic plan lays out a well-thought-out vision for an agency, with realistic yet flexible goals, all supported by actionable, measurable annual objectives that can drive the realization of those goals over an agency’s planning horizon. However, for that strategic plan to be a catalyst for change, the plan’s objectives must be supported by planning at the portfolio and program levels. The intended outcomes and benefits of programs must align with and support those strategic objectives. 

Program management – The engine for driving change

Programs are how any organization improves its offerings or internal processes. Given the scale of government agencies, using sound program management practices is essential, giving an agency a much greater probability of success by driving meaningful benefits for an agency and its constituents. The key to success is ensuring that disciplines support a program operating to deliver timely results. 

However, identifying the need to improve these solution functions is insufficient. Government agencies are complex, so it should not be surprising that improving an agency’s performance in and of itself can be complex. Yet that is where many government leaders get tripped up — they don’t develop a viable transformation plan that will enable the change by simplifying the steps and messaging and focusing on essential elements of the change. Sure, agency leaders will develop glossy strategic plans with lofty vision statements and objectives. And it’s likely that some of the objectives, if met, will result in significantly improved operations. However, such planning is typically lacking at the portfolio and program level, with proper linkage and oversight to give the agency a good chance to attain those objectives.

My approach is to develop an agency transformation plan tailored to address the particular challenges plaguing an agency. Every agency is unique. As such, there are elements of a transformation plan that will undoubtedly need tailoring based on an agency’s strengths and weaknesses. But while unique, in dealing with many federal government agencies and state governments, I have found systemic weaknesses that negatively impact an agency’s performance. The commonality of these weaknesses has been striking. By considering these commonalities across agencies, the book provides a transformation “blueprint,” a starting point agency leadership can use to tailor its transformation plan. 

Returning to the government management paradox, I have seen first-hand the amazing things government agencies can accomplish when they have experienced, capable leaders, adopt best practices tailored for government, and appropriately leverage technology to support improved operations. Change is hard, but through government leaders’ and employees’ efforts focused on implementing the right changes, agencies can significantly improve their operational performance. Under the right conditions, magic can and does happen, and some of that magic can literally change our human experience.

Richard Spires is a former federal chief information officer and private sector CEO. He currently leads a boutique consultancy and is the author, most recently of Government Can Deliver – A Practitioner's Guide to Improving Agency Effectiveness and Efficiency.

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