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The Top 10 Silent Killers of Government Efficiency and Effectiveness

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The Trump administration’s government reform initiative has gone quiet in the past few months. Apparently the White House is incorporating these plans into the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget before going public. Given this, it is unclear what will eventually come out. I was hopeful when the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance for agencies with a “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.” While it is the right thing to do, its staying power, as was the case with past reform initiatives, is suspect. It will require strong leadership, a focus on doing the right thing and resources to see results.

While thinking about needed reform while writing my book  Transforming Government from Congress to the Cubicle, I created a list of what I call silent killers. These orientations, actions (or the lack thereof), decisions, and approaches can kill or diminish the effectiveness of reform.

Leaders must take responsibility for removing barriers to ensure initiatives receive the appropriate resources, reduce risk, and ultimately succeed in serving the American people.

Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 barriers to success:

  1. Politics. You know what that can look like—lack of action, turf battles, self-protection, intentionally erected barriers, slowed funding, competing priorities, etc. These things serve to slow the process, diffuse results, exhaust the players, and limit execution. It also is the foundation for duplication, fragmentation, and overlap. Focus on being practical, not political. While accountability is critical, we don’t need death by oversight. We do need leaders who can see and address cross-government efficiencies such as shared services. We do need leaders who can make decisions and show results.
  2. Lack of Capacity. Reform should be granular in its approach. It requires expertise and dedicated resources. Most agencies don’t have this expertise and since agencies are coping with many unfunded mandates already, reform can be an added burden. To do it right, resource it right. A dedicated program management office will be necessary with the authority to plan and execute meaningful reforms. The PMO must also be responsible for communications, culture change and creating an agile organization.
  3. Loss of Focus. Administrations turn over and suddenly there are new agendas; we get whiplash and then the new agenda dies. The 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act is law, yet few really pay attention to it. The National Performance Review came and went, and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform never got off the runway. Every president’s management agenda begins with a boom and soon it is forgotten. Reform requires focus, dedication, and commitment to see it through, as well as an ability to leverage what already exists such as analyses by the Government Accountability Office. Done right, reform could transcend administrations. One possibility would be to assign a leader at the deputy director level at OMB with a 15-year term (not political) with the authority to see reforms through.
  4. Inappropriate Workforce Actions. The wrong place to start is with cutting the workforce. Agencies must first focus on reforming programs for fit, efficiency, effectiveness. The realignment of the workforce (which may or may not include cuts) should follow. It will require an investment in skills development, cultural transformation and performance management. It also requires civil service reform that is market sensitive, aligns people, respects their contribution, and includes appropriate and quick action for non-performers.
  5. A Narrow View of Reform. Making existing programs more efficient and effective requires a holistic view of all organizational systems. Individual elements cannot be treated in isolation. For example, you can’t add new technology without first fixing the business process, changing policy, and preparing the workforce.
  6. Misguided Accountability. Too often we think that if we design a performance appraisal program, we are done. Wrong. The implementation is critical. Performance management has to be woven into the fabric of the organization at many levels. Accountability needs to have positive connotations not negative.
  7. Poor Communication. As I talk to employees across agencies few people seem to even know a reform initiative is underway, and not all executives know what’s in the plans. Knowing what the plans include is critical to preparing the workforce, making wise decisions, knowing where to invest, and aligning cross-agency initiatives. It also demonstrates respect, transparency, and inclusion.
  8. Incomplete Data. Many agencies are in their infancy when it comes to capturing and using data to tell stories, predict outcomes, make decisions, and demonstrate performance. This, along with a reliable program inventory, is essential to success.  
  9. Lack of Focus on Culture. Culture is how we work together to get things done. People carry the values of the organization forward. Culture is either created and reinforced by leadership or, in a vacuum, created by employees, for good or bad. Changing a culture is not a one-time event and must support a systemic change toward effective and efficient performance. Leaders often underestimate the effort and time required, but it can make or break reform.
  10. Ineffective Procurement Practices. The government’s procurement system is broken in many agencies. The process takes far too long, program offices and contracting officers aren’t always working in partnership, contracting officers often lack sufficient expertise, and lowest price does not always equal high quality. Procurement offices are in desperate need of transformation to be able to support the reform initiative. Start with the basics.

This is my top 10, what are yours?

Steve Goodrich is the CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and author of Transforming Government from Congress to the Cubicle. He can be reached at sgoodrich@center4oe.com.

Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center of Organizational Excellence, vice chairman of the Association of Management Consulting Firms and a founding member of the Government Transformation Initiative.

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