Three Keys to Change

Reform efforts can't get off the ground without a clear cause, supporters and a plan.

As comptroller general, I have worked with others to make the Government Accountability Office a model federal agency by transforming its organization and operations to address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. In other presidentially appointed posts, including public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, I have seen the federal government falter in its attempts at major public policy reforms in those areas.

The process one employs to advance major initiatives is critical. Based on my experience, three key elements maximize the chances for success.

  • Principles. Before leaders can achieve major internal or external changes, they need to make a clear and compelling case that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable. But that's not enough. Leaders also must provide a set of clear, comprehensive and compelling principles to frame the debate and help others understand the overall direction and objectives.
  • Players. Any major reform effort requires the direct and sustained involvement of an organization's chief executive officer. But the CEO also must recruit champions from various stakeholder groups. For internal reforms, this includes managers, employees and employee organizations. For legislative reforms, it includes businesses, unions, citizen groups, think tanks, the media and members of both major political parties. Champions should be capable, credible, committed and effective communicators. These individuals also should be part of a broad-based "big tent" approach to both crafting and selling reform proposals.
  • Proposals. A detailed plan should be developed and presented or endorsed for action. The proposal should be consistent with the articulated principles, supported by applicable champions and informed by the "big tent" process. There is always risk in presenting a specific plan, especially in politically charged environments. But realistic leaders recognize that any major reform proposal is likely to be revised before it is enacted. Revisions could include desirable improvements or necessary compromises, but as the old saying goes, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

These three steps to reform do not guarantee success, but failure to effectively address one or more would likely ensure defeat. They do not have to be addressed in a particular order. For example, the initial outreach effort could include a straw proposal to jump-start the discussion and help enlist champions.

GAO's transformation and legislative efforts have consistently incorporated all three elements. The past two presidents, however, failed to achieve several major public policy reforms in part because they left out critical steps in the process. For example, early in his first term, President Clinton tapped then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to lead a comprehensive and much needed health care reform effort. But their initiative did not incorporate the players-they underestimated the need to involve a broad range of stakeholders in developing and championing a reform plan.

During his second term, President Clinton sought to make Social Security reform one of his legacies. Although he initiated several important process changes based on the health care reform experience, Clinton never produced a specific Social Security reform proposal to present to Congress.

Last year, President Bush announced his major push to reform Social Security. He, along with Clinton, deserves credit for pursuing changes sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, President Bush failed to follow any of the key steps to transformation. He never effectively articulated a set of clear and compelling principles to frame the debate, and his public events typically did not involve nonpartisan fact providers, champions from both parties, or a broad cross-section of key stakeholders. Also, the president never developed a comprehensive proposal or formally endorsed an alternative. The result after more than 60 events was a decline of public support for Bush's Social Security reforms.

The three key elements of transformation are not a panacea, but they can work. Internal operational improvements or external public policy changes can be complex, challenging and controversial. But if you don't get started, you have no chance of success. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Aggressive fighting for the right [cause] is the noblest sport the world affords." We need more people with Roosevelt's vision, courage, integrity, creativity and stewardship mentality. Please join me in finding a worthy transformation cause and fighting for it.

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