Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Fixing Reform


Like President Obama, the past two administrations pushed governmentwide management reform efforts. Bill Clinton had his reinventing government initiative, which focused on getting agencies to use technology better, while George W. Bush had the President's Management Agenda, which featured e-government as one of its five pillars.

So it wasn't surprising when Obama's outgoing budget director, Peter R. Orszag, recently told the Center for American Progress, in a speech highlighting Obama's management agenda, that "closing the IT gap is perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government." It was a bit more surprising when he said: "Indeed, the IT gap is the key differentiator between our effort to modernize and reform government and those that have come before."

A focus on IT obviously is not new. Fixing IT has been a Sisyphean task at the White House for at least 18 years. What would distinguish this administration's effort would be demonstrable success at making government writ large an effective IT user. The Clinton and Bush administrations' technology efforts certainly had some successes, but the litany of failed IT projects that continues to plague agencies shows that overall IT management reform didn't work.

It might be that any governmentwide effort is doomed. Why? The most the Office of Management and Budget or any central agency can do is set policy. That's also true of many Cabinet departments, which often are just amalgamations of unique operating agencies. It's the managers in those agencies whose work decides whether an IT project fails or succeeds.

The Veterans Health Administration, once the poster child of poor management, became a model of health care delivery during the 1990s, largely through its use of technology, Orszag noted in his speech. VHA sustained its good reputation through the 2000s as well. Why? Because the agency had strong leaders who made smart decisions, starting with Ken Kizer, VHA chief in 1994. The agency's open source electronic patient records system has become the standard for hospitals worldwide.

Other agencies had similar renaissances, including the Internal Revenue Service -- which had effective leaders in Charles Rossotti and Mark Everson from 1997 to 2007. The tax collection agency is not yet an IT management role model, but it has significantly boosted electronic filing and processing of returns during the past decade. One big problem for the IRS is it has churned through chief information officers and modernization project managers so often that a steady hand has been lacking.

Governmentwide reform efforts might have helped on the margins, but the keys to successful turnarounds are found within the individual agencies. OMB can issue memoranda and circulars and policies on management issues, and other central players can do the same in an effort to provide leadership direction, but in the end the senior executives, mid-level managers and front-line supervisors are the ones who make or break reform efforts. Supporting promising managers by clearing procedural hurdles and bureaucratic obstacles might be the most useful ways top administration officials can promote good government. Managers often find central agencies more of a hindrance than a help in their efforts to make their operations run more smoothly and effectively.

Governmentwide policy matters. But agency-level management matters more, and individual managers matter most of all.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.