We have all heard the stories: It takes three government agencies to inspect catfish, 11 agencies to conduct autism research and seven to nine months to effectively retire federal workers. Certainly, every organization—public or private—faces its fair share of challenges. No entity is 100 percent effective at everything it does. Nevertheless, inefficiencies among federal organizations border on the absurd: Government can and must do better.
The White House and Congress are focusing on the tough policy issues—health care, immigration, gun control, energy—which remain contentious due to an increasingly divisive system of party politics. While real progress is critical in those areas, our leaders are overlooking opportunities to make an immediate difference and show some progress in making government management and operations efficient and effective. Consider it nonpartisan low-hanging fruit.
There are plenty of cases of inefficiency and ineffectiveness that can be fixed, saving billions of dollars and giving government an opportunity to regain credibility with the American people.
Let’s look at one relatively small but important example: the federal retirement process. As previously mentioned, it takes an average of seven to nine months to get the first retirement check to an annuitant. Retirements have increased, but the government has done nothing to meet this demand. It would be a matter of months before private sector leaders would face class-action lawsuits and plummeting stock prices for such mismanagement, yet it continues to be an “acceptable” government process.
This is just one example among thousands of government inefficiency, but it shows that the flaws of the federal retirement process go beyond labor, resources or technology. They stem from a widespread and systemic management and operations problem.
Below are five things leaders can do now to mitigate government oversight and begin improving efficiency and effectiveness on a wider scale.
- Prioritize management and operations. Despite efforts by the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accountability Office, and oversight committees in the Senate and House, little has been done to reform processes across agencies. GAO reports identify instances of government waste, but actionable solutions are not presented to Congress and legislation addressing efficiency is not given priority. The White House and Congress need to recognize this as a nonpartisan issue, in which real progress can be made and money can be saved.
- Incentivize agency leaders. If we want to get serious about innovation and large-scale government efficiency, we need to start empowering our leaders. Agency chiefs should have the authority to shift budgets, address poor performance in the workplace and propose innovative solutions to real problems. Leaders must be supported by a Congress and an administration willing to address legislative, regulatory and cultural barriers to program efficiency. Management tools are antiquated, and bonuses are granted regardless of performance. As Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., once said, “We need agency leaders who are willing to be fired. [Only] then will we know they are focused on action and doing the right thing.”
- Hold executives and managers accountable. Agency leaders must deliver real outcomes that are aligned with missions and goals. If they demonstrate proven performance, reward them. If not, replace them. Accountability means eliminating the “check the box” culture and recognizing that metrics are not equivalent to measured results. It is time to embark on a large-scale change management initiative to make real accountability a central value of the federal workforce.
- Assess programs. Many large-scale systems and programs are implemented and then forgotten. Programs must be closely monitored after the work has begun. Reviews should be required to demonstrate that programs are still valid, effective and appropriate and that they are achieving measurable success.
- Do things right. It sounds naive, but Congress and the White House need to make decisions based on quality data. They need the capacity and tools to focus on widespread efficiency and effectiveness, and they need to work with agencies and workers to get the job done. Agency leaders need to “plan, do, validate, achieve.”
Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and vice chair of the Government Transformation Initiative.