Despite their varied agendas, think tanks, nonprofits and associations are banding together under one overarching theme-to make government better.
Like any Cabinet chief or agency leader, they are consulted when government wants to make a change, offering decades of collective knowledge and expertise. But when the nation is reeling from management disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the financial crisis, or when antiquated federal pay and management systems are ripe for revision, they become SWAT teams, parachuting in to help meet urgent needs. They are good government organizations that serve as strike teams for federal agencies on important issues, providing recommendations, research and even training. Though these nonprofits, think tanks and professional associations tout a range of projects and priorities, the community of good government groups is experiencing a period of unprecedented cooperation.
Prompted in part by the challenges of one of the highest-stakes presidential transitions in history, and seeing a rare opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus in favor of strengthening federal management, many of the groups have heightened their involvement in the Government Performance Coalition. Through that loose confederation, which has existed for eight years but struggled to get off the ground, organizations have issued universal principles for reform, begun to coordinate their efforts, and are attempting to bring unions and employee groups into closer cooperation on their core goals. Along the way, good government groups have found surprising strength in their divergent structures, constituencies and agendas.
Historically, organizations that have garnered the most attention for advocating federal management reform have strong ideological agendas-the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Brookings Institution, for example. But the controversial Bush years, and the challenges the Obama administration faces as it begins, have created an opening for good government organizations to send a different kind of message.
"They want to improve government performance, but it's not pro-environment or anti-environment, pro-education or anti-education," says Jonathan Breul, coordinator of the Government Performance Coalition and executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, which funds management research. "Whatever the education program is, we want to do it better."
The stringent nonpartisanship that defines the key good government groups is a challenge. Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, which focuses on government personnel issues, says it can be hard to draw public, much less political, attention to an issue that doesn't stir fervent ideological passions.
John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, says the magnitude of the challenges President Obama faces as he takes over management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempts to determine the efficacy of the bailouts of the financial system and Detroit, and seeks to implement major initiatives on health care and energy, has created a constituency for management reform outside the universe of federal workers and managers.
"If the economy were booming, if we were not engaged in international conflicts and so on, I think there's the tendency to float and not worry about it and think things are fine," he says. "But things aren't fine. I think that external pressure has kind of ramped up the willingness of people to engage in more serious discussions and take a look at what is the performance level of government, can we improve it, and how would we know if we did. Those become more important questions that people spend more time on when the stakes are as high as they are."
When the dust clears, Bruel says, new administrations need people with experience and who are not tainted by involvement with the previous administration to offer them management advice.
To that end, good government organizations participated in a wide range of transition-related efforts. The Council for Excellence in Government assembled a group of specialists to help guide the Homeland Security Department's first presidential transition, trained staffers who worked with outgoing and incoming appointees, and launched a suite of online resources. The Partnership for Public Service put together a blueprint for human capital reform and recruited a group of co-sponsors. And the IBM Center for the Business of Government launched a transition blog and published a series of guides for leaders at different levels of government.
"We're not trying to do the job of government, we're trying to help government do its job better," Stier says. "We have to fight above our weight class, and we have to understand that there are things we can do, that we have a comparative advantage."
The same sense of urgency that has called government's attention to performance has compelled good government organizations to step up their own coordination. And they've done so through the Government Performance Coalition. An unfunded organization with no professional staff, the coalition is run through the volunteer efforts of good government group leaders. Early in the Bush administration, the coalition received some funding for a joint book project on performance management advice, but it now operates primarily as a clearinghouse for its member organizations' efforts.
In the year before the transition, the coalition began to meet more regularly under the leadership of Breul. John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, assembled a dance card of all the organizations' initiatives to make sure no group was duplicating another's efforts (it turns out most of the groups were working on separate issues), and to help them become more networked.
Breul says he considered whether to try to make the coalition a more formal, funded organization, but he prefers the way it operates now. "The honest truth is all these organizations have trouble with funding to begin with," he says. "I think we'd lose something if it became a staff-driven and staff-supported thing. Now people are focusing on things that matter to them and that they're passionate about. There's no phoniness or obligation. People are doing it because they want to."
The loose structure isn't just a vehicle for agreement at the coalition. It's a requirement. Because of the variety of governance structures among the member groups, it's impossible for them all to commit to a concerted lobbying campaign or even formally endorse a program. The National Academy of Public Administration needs a majority vote of its fellows to sign on to a program, while the Council for Excellence in Government relies on a board of trustees. The Partnership for Public Service is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, banned from extensive lobbying efforts, but the for-profit Performance Institute can make public commitments much more easily.
Despite those differences, the coalition's member organizations share a sense of common purpose. "What I see people coming to us for is calling it as we see it and being an honest broker," says Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute. "How I see the people in the coalition in particular is people who have a lot of strong ideas coming out of government but had their hands tied. We feel we're really providing a service by putting this stuff on the table."
The strengths of that decentralized approach are apparent in the Government Performance Coalition's first major coordinated action this year, releasing a set of three principles to guide government management reform. Those principles-adopting performance frameworks at the executive and legislative branch agencies, increasing investment in human resources and personnel, and using technology more strategically-were endorsed by the 18 organizations that are part of the coalition. But the recommendations do not commit either the coalition or its members to a formal course of action.
"That's sort of the power of the coalition," says Breul. "So many groups with so much experience and different perspectives can agree that there's some common elements here that are really necessary."
That's not to say that all members of the coalition are equally invested in every one of the principles.
"Technology is more of a means than an end, and I didn't really see it as the same level as the other two, but that's part of the coalition," Desenberg says. "You negotiate and you agree on something you can live with."
But the principles do give the member groups a broadly common message when they talk to the presidential transition team and other leaders in Washington. By not speaking as a single organization, the member groups maintain their separate identities and have multiple chances to reinforce their theory that management matters.
"Any single organization has its network and its contacts, but I don't know that it's all-encompassing," says the Partnership's Palguta. "You're talking to somebody and I know they're interested in something that Jonathan [Breul's] group [is doing], or Jon Desenberg, or George Washington University's [Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration], I can say, 'Oh, by the way, you need to check with Kathryn Newcomer [associate director of the Trachtenberg School]. They've got some good stuff.' "
Palguta also notes that at a time when the economy is suffering, the organizations in the coalition that are nonprofits, like the Partnership, or that rely on corporate support, like the IBM Center, need to be careful with their resources. Working with a network of like-minded groups means these organizations can amplify their message without spending more money.
That amplification is especially important dur-ing a time when government programs-and problems-are growing faster than any outside group can organize to address them. "My concern is that these little programs get . . . really dissected and evaluated, but then, when we drop $200 billion on someone, that's just too big of an emergency to evaluate it," says Desenberg. "It's ridiculous. I'm a little worried that as the government's problems get bigger and become emergencies, that we kind of suspend the rules on performance, hiring, acquisition, and just get the money out the door as soon as possible."
The Union Voice
As the transition has put a spotlight on government management, it has brought attention to one constituency the good government groups have yet to bring fully on board: federal employee unions.
When rumors circulated that the Partnership's Stier might be a leading contender to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management, some unions were quick to express their opposition. Mark Roth, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union would have vehemently opposed Stier's nomination because he and the Partnership had not taken strong enough stances against efforts to curtail collective bargaining. Such restrictions were embedded in new pay and evaluation systems, including the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System and Homeland Security's MaxHR system, which has since been abandoned.
The bad blood left over from those battles between unions and departments is substantial. Breul acknowledges that focusing on pay for performance before performance measurement systems were fully in place was probably premature. "There wasn't a performance culture in a lot of those organizations and all those larger questions weren't engaged, and so you kind of did a rifle shot toward one dimension, which went off track," he says.
But Michael Filler, associate director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters public services division, a recent addition to the Government Performance Coalition, says he hopes those battles won't leave other unions intractably opposed to working with good government groups to push management reform.
"The nonprofits kind of generate the ideas and can challenge the status quo, and conduct the studies to see if things that have been tried in the past can work or not," Filler says. "[Unions] serve as gatekeepers to employees, the people who are doing the work, who know the job, who can identify the failed practices."
That's not to say there aren't differences between the Teamsters and other organizations in the coalition. The Partnership, for example, advocates abolishing the General Schedule and replacing it with performance-linked pay systems. Filler says he prefers a more bottom-up approach to pay, and that it is important to begin by finding out what will both motivate employees and ensure they feel that they are being treated fairly. To that end, he and the Performance Institute's Desenberg are in the early stages of a project that will educate union members more about performance management with the aim of getting sound feedback about what might make pay and evaluation systems effective.
"It was so refreshing to hear Michael say the unions can't just keep saying no to everything," says Desenberg. "I haven't hesitated to criticize NSPS because it's been so directive, so top-down. . . . If [unions] aren't happy with what's being proposed by the Partnership, or what's being imposed by NSPS, what would make them happy?"
Pursuit of Happiness
What makes everyone happy? What works? Those questions define both the problem and the opportunity for good government organizations at this pivotal moment. They can ask the hard questions, and make the hard statements about what works. It's not their employees who get annoyed when an agency adopts a new pay system. It's not their program that fails when no one's bothered to monitor its progress. Ultimately, they can't make the tough decisions, and they can't force anyone to make changes.
But the good government groups hope that they can help move management issues from ignored to accepted, with some help from current events.
"If there are good management initiatives out there, you won't see folks saying, 'Why are you wasting your time doing that stuff?'" says the Partnership's Palguta. "It's like, 'We understand. Go to it. Get the good folks, and make sure you take care of these problems.' "