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How Agency Leaders Can Seize the Opportunity to Reorganize Government

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The Office of Management and Budget soon will begin tracking progress on President Trump’s executive order to reorganize the executive branch.

Agency leaders will have had almost a year to digest the order since it was issued, but this next phase will result in significant leadership challenges as the restructuring begins. Change is disruptive, critics are everywhere and the payoff may take time to materialize. But there also is a significant opportunity for innovation and reinvention to cascade across the federal government.  

For leaders who are living and breathing transformation, we gathered best practices from past and ongoing reforms in government. The lessons can be applied to the inevitable challenges that will emerge.

Don’t lose focus.

Charles Rossotti, the former IRS commissioner who oversaw the restructuring of the agency in the late 1990s, believes senior leaders must focus on “the driving force calling for change,” being clear about the purpose behind the transformation.

During his tenure, there was a perception that IRS was working solely to fill coffers at the Department of the Treasury and not serving the needs of taxpayers. Rossotti set about to better serve the customers of the IRS through five levers of change: a customer-focused organizational structure; revamped business processes; clear management roles and accountability; performance measures; and technology. One of the new technologies he oversaw was the development of an electronic filing system to provide a faster, easier and less costly process for filing tax returns than paper filing. But adopting the new technology took more than releasing new software.

While the tax e-filing software itself was not complicated, Rossotti said, the change required moving from a familiar system to something completely new. This strategy demanded an understanding of how the new technology would affect both internal and external stakeholders. Challenges included educating the public on the benefits of e-filing, getting the return preparers to support the new system and convincing staff internally that this approach would better serve taxpayers.

“Did that mean we couldn’t do it?” Rossotti asked rhetorically. “No! You address all of these things together.” By 2001, 31 percent of taxpayers filed their taxes online and by last year, 92 percent filed electronically.

Create and communicate your top goals.

Once you know what’s driving the transformation, you can start to prioritize the tactics you will need to reach the stated goals. Thad Allen, the 23rd commandant of the Coast Guard, said this means developing a management agenda and a roadmap.

“You have to have your organization dedicated to this change and track it,” said Allen, who made major reforms in how the Coast Guard was managed when he became commandant.

Allen devised what he called the Ten Commander’s Intent Action Orders. This plan included such items as setting up a deployable operations group, revamping the acquisition system and developing a new maritime strategy.

Allen said he focused resources and efforts needed to attain his 10 priorities and issued regular reports on the status of each action, emphasizing that incorporating evaluation and improvement as core to the organization’s culture is critical to successful change.  

Take risks to push innovation.

Innovation in government requires stepping outside of the expected and taking calculated risks.

For example, to make the 2020 headcount more efficient, the Census Bureau is automating processes, using on-screen imagery to verify addresses and allowing the public to respond via the internet.

Each of these tactics invites new risks. To track and mitigate potential problems, the Department of Commerce is establishing a team to evaluate the Census program. The 2020 Census also remains on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List and will receive extra scrutiny and oversight from Congress. But leadership at the Census continues to drive these innovations and seek new efficiencies.

Not all transformations across the federal government will have the same goals. Agency changes may hinge on using new technology, resetting the mission by eliminating or consolidating certain activities, or addressing the changing needs and expectations of federal customers.

In all situations, leaders must keep their eyes on the larger objective of making their agencies more effective while navigating the complex issues involving management, resources, employee morale and the interests of internal and external stakeholders. It is not a task for the faint of heart, but it will be well worth the effort.

Tina Sung is a vice president at the Partnership for Public Service where she brings years of multi-sector executive leadership experience. Dee Dee Helfenstein is a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and has more than 20 years of commercial and government consulting experience. For ongoing discussion around transformation, visit Booz Allen and the Partnership for Public Service and follow online at #PoweringGov.

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