Beyond the Budget

Senior executives can inspire innovation, even under fiscal constraints.

In this difficult economy, the American people are increasingly anxious about receiving the services they expect from their government, whether it's food safety, border security, or a range of other vital missions. At the same time, federal employees are operating in an unstable environment of budget constraints, interminable continuing resolutions and threatened government shutdowns as pressure mounts to reduce an explosive increase in the federal debt.

In this climate of inertia, how can agency leaders achieve their objectives? In business, cost-cutting is expected to achieve efficiencies without sacrificing productivity or innovation. The private sector has a great incentive to take extraordinary actions to stay in business-the bottom line. When AOL Inc. experienced financial hardships from plummeting subscribership to its Internet business, executives changed their business model. They began offering Internet accounts for free, and looked to new revenue streams such as advertising to sustain their company.

It is difficult to make the same kind of radical change in government. Budget reductions often are distributed ineffectively through pro rata cuts that dilute initiatives. And restructuring or surgically cutting ineffective programs can be challenging if those programs have well-entrenched support networks. Yet budget cuts can be absorbed without sacrificing results.

At the Defense Department, for example, reserve component training time was limited by budget constraints, but essential wartime mission training could not be sacrificed. Officials developed an individual computer-based approach to administrative training, freeing up valuable face time needed for unit training requirements. It was a creative way to achieve core objectives while dealing with the realities of budget restrictions.

Senior Executive Service members are in a unique position to achieve extraordinary results, despite significant obstacles. They know the ropes, and political appointees rely on their guidance to meet legislative requirements. A committed leader who inspires others with ongoing conversations about the future-even if it looks gloomy-is an essential part of an organization's viability.

Strong leaders can galvanize an agency and its stakeholders with a common, aligned vision. This requires breakthrough approaches in the following key areas:

Focus on outcomes. Maintain a relentless commitment to measurable results, rather than the completion of tasks or processes that might not achieve the agency's goals.

Transform leadership teams. Ensure that senior leaders are solid in their resolve to deliver clearly defined outcomes that support organizational objectives. Give them permission to risk striving for goals that they don't necessarily know how to achieve. Bring out the best among the workforce by demonstrating how their efforts support the strategic plan.

Alter the organizational mind-set. Producing extraordinary results requires a shift in the fundamental way people think. It means abandoning long-standing assumptions that undermine audacious objectives, and taking actions for which there is no guarantee of success.

Senior government executives have received little help from agencies with upgrading their skills to meet 21st century demands. Reducing essential support functions such as training or strategic planning during budget cuts damages an agency's ability to innovate. These choices are as shortsighted as a farmer deciding to cut costs by buying less fertilizer for his crops. In both examples, productivity suffers.

Agencies must give senior executives the green light to adopt new thinking and approaches that can achieve meaningful breakthroughs, despite a budget crisis. Only then will we be able to create the government of the future.

Jennifer C. Buck, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs, is executive adviser to Gap International's government practice. Henry Fischer, a retired Marine officer and Gulf War veteran, is director of Gap International.

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