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

The Debt Ceiling Is a Farce

On Sept. 8, in what has become a Washington ritual, Congress increased the debt limit, essentially authorizing the federal government to pay its bills—for 90 days. The debt limit, also known as the debt ceiling, must be increased again. On Dec. 11, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin informed House Speaker Paul Ryan that Treasury is taking “extraordinary measures” to come up with the cash necessary to make good on the government’s commitments. Among other things, Treasury will suspend investments in Civil Service and Postal Service retirement funds.

But these actions will provide enough cash only until Jan 31, 2018. Mnuchin urged Congress to act to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.

Debt ceiling politics is simply gamesmanship; it encourages needless brinkmanship and it endangers the creditworthiness of the United States. To paraphrase former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke—refusing to raise the debt limit is unacceptable no matter what the reason.

I propose we eliminate it altogether. Here’s how, along with some background:

What is the debt ceiling?

The debt-ceiling extension is not about spending more money. It is about paying for what is already spent. Furthermore, the rationale and apolitical way to permanently address...

The Clock Is Ticking on Trump’s Management Agenda

We are now almost a year into the new administration, so it’s not really “new” anymore. Indeed, 11 months is a major chunk of time for any administration. I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of various policy pronouncements during the last year, but one thing is clear: While better government management was a major theme of the Trump campaign, a real management agenda—one that is cogent, coordinated, leadership-driven, and focused on improving institutional and mission performance—is not yet in evidence. I’ve been in and around government for more than three decades, across five administrations. Like many of my colleagues, I would have expected more in the way of such a plan by now. And the clock is ticking.

It is true that every agency was required to submit to the White House Office of Management and Budget an individual restructuring plan. The details of those plans, as finalized by OMB, will presumably be reflected in the fiscal 2019 budget, which we will see in February. Although some of the agency submissions have been shared publicly, many have not. And thus the budget release will be our first real look at them and...

A Short Equation Explains Why Simplicity Is The Best Policy

Let’s start with a quiz. If you have a machine with 200 parts, each of which operates independently and is 99% reliable, how reliable will the overall machine be?

95% ? 80%? 99%? Nope, nope, and nope. It’s somewhat shocking to learn that it’ll only be around 13% reliable, running just 13 hours out of every hundred it should. Truly terrible.

The math is relatively simple (you multiply the probability that each of the 200 variables will fail by one another), but the lesson here isn’t that you should take a journey to your long-forgotten stats class. It’s that keeping processes simple is nearly always the best policy. Mistakes compound across a process to make an organization overall much less effective than any one of its individual parts. So the fewer parts your processes have, the better.

If you run a factory or a science lab, you likely think about these sorts of problems each day. But for those of us who don’t, this little bit of mathematical insight can pay dividends.

Imagine, for example, that you run a bike rental company. Most of your employees are pretty good, but none are perfect. Most of...

Data Shouldn't Drive All of Your Decisions

When was the last time you heard the story of a great innovation begin with, “I built a killer spreadsheet”?

More often you’ll hear stories like the one behind Airbnb’s early growth strategy. Founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky’s had in their early days been advised by Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham to leave the confines of Silicon Valley and get face time with customers in their most concentrated market, New York City. By doing so, the duo quickly discovered three major problems inhibiting growth: hosts didn’t know how to photograph their apartments attractively, the website’s meticulously designed listing interface was actually a nightmare for hosts, and in-home cash transactions between guests and hosts were inherently awkward. Gebbia and Chesky’s focus on the ground level triggered an inflection at the high-level: top line growth doubled even as they just began implementing the raft of initial changes. And the growth never slowed down.

Or you’ll hear about Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, who—with no money and no market analysis—maxed out their credit cards at Bloomingdale’s to buy 100 dresses. They had a ton of questions: Would women rent...

How Agencies Can Address the Aging Workforce Gap

Let this remarkable fact sink in: Nearly one-third of federal employees are eligible for retirement, yet only 28 percent of the current workforce is under 40 years old.

How can this possibly work out?

One out of every three people sitting at a desk in every government office across the country will be gone when they decide to turn in their federal IDs and head into retirement, and the next wave of retirees won’t be far behind them.

As a prime example, at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, 61 percent of NASA employees are eligible to retire in next 10 years. This means three out of every five seats at NASA will be empty in the next decade without a huge wave of reinforcements.

With the Trump administration working to streamline government, agencies will have to figure out how to do things differently. When changes in agency operations are combined with the impending workforce gap, many organizations are going to be left in a challenging position.

But there are options available to solve this workforce gap that is only going to grow wider. For starters, we need to put more emphasis on integrating the millennial generation into...