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Know How to Use the Power Tools of Change

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What are the major levers for driving change in government agencies? Traditional tools are statutory updates, budgetary controls and executive orders. But one that seasoned government executives can use to drive change is control over delegations of authority.

In a recent report detailing how several federal agencies created shared service centers for mission support functions like information technology, personnel and contracting, the Partnership for Public Service offers advice on undertaking such an initiative. The report recommends developing incentives, agreement on common goals and clearly defined roles.

But only when you talk with some of the leaders involved in these initiatives do you get a real sense of what they did to get it done. How did they create incentives? How did they reach agreement and clearly defined roles? It turns out they used a little-discussed power tool—their control over delegations of authority.

What is a delegation of authority? It is the formal assignment of certain responsibilities along with the necessary authority by one agency to another, such as when the Office of Management and Budget delegates statutory authority to agencies; a delegation can also involve transferring authority from a superior to his subordinate managers. The latter can be a key tool for improving agency management while retaining accountability. As one academic notes: “Delegation does not mean surrender of authority by the higher level manager. It only means transfer of certain responsibilities to subordinates and giving them the necessary authority . . . to discharge the responsibility properly.”

Take, for example, the legal authority to delegate personnel management in the U.S. Code:

“(1) the president may delegate, in whole or in part, authority for personnel management functions, including authority for competitive examinations, to the director of the Office of Personnel Management; and

(2) the director may delegate, in whole or in part, any function vested in or delegated to the director . . . to the heads of agencies in the executive branch and other agencies employing persons in the competitive service.”

The Housing and Urban Development Department is one of the few agencies in which an inventory of the delegations of authority is available.

How do leaders use this authority? Many organizational units within departments and agencies operate relatively autonomously, and they treasure their independence. This independence to act often derives from one or more delegations of authority from the agency head or department secretary. In many cases, these delegations evolved and expanded incrementally over a period of years. Often there is no central inventory of the authorities that have been delegated—and the units that received them rarely advertise them to new bosses outside their unit.

In two of the case studies in the Partnership’s report on shared services, leveraging the use of delegations of authority was the key to creating an incentive for independent agencies to participate and served as the focal point for agreeing on common goals and clearly defined roles in a shared services environment.

Environmental Management Office, Energy Department: In the early 2000s, Jessie Roberson, then-head of the Environmental Management Office, was concerned that the cleanup of nuclear waste was moving too slowly. A review showed that internal business processes were fragmented and not structured to be effective or efficient. So she decided to create a consolidated business center that merged multiple support activities—such as personnel, finance and contract management—into a single unit to serve components across the organization. The center would also integrate mission functions, such as nuclear waste cleanup and environmental management.

But the field offices traditionally had relative autonomy and had created their own separate business support functions, which reinforced the fragmentation. To spark a discussion of how they might better work together and share resources, Roberson withdrew most delegated authorities from the field. Once these authorities were clarified and better aligned, she then selectively re-delegated them with clearer roles and responsibilities.

Management Directorate, Homeland Security Department: Former undersecretary for management Rafael Borras says when he arrived in 2010 he found a balkanized organization with “a jumble of disparate cultures, staffs and operating procedures.” The report says: “Assessments found duplicative IT systems, weak procurement oversight and stovepiped decision-making, among other problems.”

In order to begin unifying these mission support functions, he tactically focused on revisions to delegations of authority (e.g., the roles of the departmental chief financial officer versus counterparts in the bureaus and their spans of control). The bureaus, for example, could not hire their own CFOs without concurrence of the departmental CFO.

Borras did not have the authority to grant or deny delegations of authority. But to create the incentive to engage in meaningful interactions to unify the functions of the mission support and operational components (e.g., the chief information officer, Customs and Border Protection and Federal Emergency Management Agency), he sought the support of then-Secretary Janet Napolitano. She changed the way delegations of authority were approved at DHS—all requests for delegation had to be reviewed and approved by Borras’ office before they could be signed off by the secretary—so they could not sneak end runs around him. His goal was to create enterprisewide functions such as a common email system for the department, which not only saved money but also improved operations. But bringing together the stakeholders took a lot of effort, and the delegation of authority was a strong incentive to participate.

The withdrawal of a delegation of authority is not to be done lightly. It is controversial and can result in confrontations with congressional staff and union supporters of organizations losing their authority. Leaders taking this kind of action must be sure to have strong support from above and clear communication with those affected.

In any effort to create a common approach across organizational units, one step might be to look for an inventory of delegations of authority to determine what has been delegated and which authorities are maintained at a higher level. Figure out who has the authority to grant or withdraw these delegations—either formally or informally. This may be your first step in creating the incentives for others to participate in a collaborative effort such as shared email services that could benefit your agency or department more broadly.

(Image via gualtiero boffi/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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