America’s Business Plan

Sam Kittner

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2015 budget—unveiled in early March—contained a new wrinkle. For the first time on budget day, the White House simultaneously released updated agency strategic plans.

One document that Beth Cobert, the new deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, saw fit to highlight in congressional testimony was the Commerce Department’s, with its five strategic goals addressing trade and investment, innovation, the environment, data and operational excellence.

“From these broader strategic goals, agencies establish specific performance targets and set key milestones for the current and next fiscal year within their annual performance plans,” Cobert told a Senate panel on March 12.

Commerce, perhaps because of its smorgasbord of agencies that handle everything from the census to weather forecasting to export promotion, has long struggled to unify and brand itself.  Its heavy turnover of secretaries over the decades has permitted few to achieve great stature around Washington or in the business community. And, as occurs at many agencies, Commerce’s efforts to streamline its management often have been thwarted by culture clashes between short-timer political appointees and long-view career managers.

But in the summer of 2013, with the Obama administration revving up its second-term push to intensify performance management, Commerce was in a precarious position. “Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank had just left, and we knew we would have a new secretary in short order,” says Patrick Gallagher, the acting deputy Commerce secretary and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Gallagher and senior managers took an “honest look,” he says, at the impending deadline for strategic planning set by the do-more-with-less bosses at OMB.

“We decided it didn’t make sense to go through a complete rewrite at this stage, which would be a lot of make-work for the agency,” Gallagher says. Instead, the transitional Commerce team prepared for a quick-touch update of the strategic plan issued in 2011 by then-Secretary Gary Locke. “But a funny thing happened on way to that plan,” Gallagher recalls. In June 2013, the new secretary, Penny Pritzker, was sworn in and began a listening tour of the department’s units.

“Coming from a business background, where plans really matter,” Gallagher says, Pritzker made it clear that in “a diverse department trying to make an impact, you can’t focus on everything. We had to play for an effective sense of direction, not just for her, but for the whole department to align against, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

That meant rejecting any superficial planning exercise merely to comply with OMB, and shifting to “what we need ourselves within the department,” he says. That also meant a discussion of performance metrics, of the balanced score cards that were central to Locke’s earlier 2011-2016 plan, as well as a review of the agency reporting goals under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

“If you’re not careful in strategic plans, they become disconnected from what the department is doing,” with too many “bolt-on activities” added merely for compliance, Gallagher says. “We decided if they want us to have metrics and measures, they should reflect things that we’re actually managing.”

The result was a confluence of events: The secretary said Commerce needed a plan, and the agencies said they wanted the plan to be real. 

The final 2014-2018 blueprint “didn’t magically happen with a snap of the fingers,” says Gallagher, a research physicist who joined NIST in 1993. As
Pritzker continued her listening tour in July and August 2013, the team “was building the plane while we flew it,” he says. They worked throughout the fall in sync with OMB’s schedule for budget preparation, holding daylong senior retreats across the bureaus for laying out what Gallagher calls the “bucketology” for the diverse mission. 

In November, Commerce rolled out a business outreach campaign aligned with the incipient strategic plan called the “Open for Business Agenda.” It reflected the department’s effort to act as the voice of the business community and the administration’s focus on economic growth and job creation, planners boasted. The agenda offers export promotion, industry-led job skills training, initiatives to attract foreign investment, and public-private partnerships to better use government data.

After an exhausting six months, the strategic plan released during the elongated budget rollout on March 10 came together well, according to Gallagher. “It’s better even than what I was hoping for when we started,” he says. “It’s consistent with GPRA, and OMB is very responsive. It’s a very effective framework for communicating what’s important to us.”

Impartial observers agree. “Commerce is probably the department that’s most diverse in mission, hardest to explain,” says John Kamensky, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “But this is the first time I’ve seen a plan out of Commerce where I get it.” The new text is “more clearly expressed than the old one, and it’s summarized on one page,” he adds, praising Gallagher’s contribution. Kamensky notes the fourth strategic goal on using data to inform decisions. “It is framed in a different way, showing that the administration thinks about data as a resource,” he says. “It tells a compelling story that should resonate not only with employees but with other federal agencies.”

Avoiding pitfalls

The differences between Commerce’s new strategic plan and the one it replaced are subtle. Locke’s version had six themes and 27 objectives, while the new one boiled down the mission to five themes and 18 objectives. Both were the result of deep consultation with employees across the department. Both plans included goals and strategies assigned to specified agencies within Commerce. Both complied with GRPA by setting hard metrics for measuring progress.

Both plans also served as an umbrella for Commerce’s biannual shift in agency priority goals submitted to OMB. For 2014-2015 these include:

▪ Confirming elimination of overfishing

▪ Improving patent processing time and quality

▪ Improving forecasting accuracy and lead times for severe weather

▪ Helping more companies meet export objectives through Commerce’s Global Markets unit

▪ Expanding U.S  broadband infrastructure

One difference is that the Locke-era plan placed greater emphasis on external indicators and contributing programs. 

Chief obstacles to completing the Pritzker plan included “getting everyone on the same page with its purpose,” Gallagher says. With a new secretary settling in and setting up staff, “one group looked at it initially as the secretary’s plan and priorities to basically be used to just drive her activities, with the stuff about the department’s bureaus being nice but not important.”

But some in the bureaus were saying “these are the GPRA goals for the agency, for us to be managing programs for maximum effect,” Gallagher adds.  Others saw the task as an OMB requirement, saying “this is all about checking the box and meeting requirements under GPRA. All looked at it through a different lens.”

The struggle “was getting them all on point. Instead of three things with no resemblance, let’s have one plan designed to center us, one we can align to,” Gallagher says. So even though the secretary sets priorities, “it’s emphatically our agenda, not her agenda, to move,” he says. “It took a lot of work to get to point where common framework could serve all of those needs.”

Another challenge was the disconnect between political appointees and career managers. “Career people specialize in program management, are subject matter experts, take the long view of problems and are very aware of legacy issues from the past,” says Gallagher, who has served in both capacities. “Political appointees look at things with a fresh set of eyes, are less sensitive to past troubles and are trying to make a difference, often as quickly as they can. Momentum matters.” Appointees see “how what Commerce does fits into larger context of what we’re trying to do for the country,”  he adds.

The solution was to “choreograph a tennis match of back and forth,” Gallagher says, between strategic and operational thinkers. Deputy-level leaders on the executive management team were asked to frame an agenda and the next phase, and bureau leaders on the departmentwide management council were asked to reply with “this is what we think you’ve said,” Gallagher says.

A common problem is that “no one wants to be left out of a plan, since they feel it’s a litmus test of what’s important,” he says. “But the plan can get diluted.” There also was tension over whether to focus on high-impact activities—those requiring special attention because they cut across multiple bureaus or because they are new. “We focused on the delta, or the change part of the agenda, to really make it strategic. We had to convince everyone that just because they’re not in there, doesn’t mean they’re not important,” Gallagher says, adding that the “exciting result was that both teams felt they owned it equally.”

The Commerce planners had to be careful when addressing the goal and metric requirements in GPRA, according to Gallagher. “Having a fixed goal and some form of accountability is important in that it centers the attention of the organization and is effective in mobilizing people to keep them on track,” he says. “That’s a good thing if the goal you set leads to the right behavior. The danger is, if you set an imperfect goal, you may accidentally drive the wrong behavior. And if the exercise becomes one of chasing numbers without thinking about why, you can get some strange outcomes.”

It was especially important for the Commerce team to rethink goals and allow them to mature, according to
Gallagher. For example, after a multi-agency national export initiative was set up in 2010 in an effort to double exports, Foreign Commercial Service officers were “chasing new deals” to make their numbers, Gallagher says. “We concluded that this wasn’t the right approach, so we adopted a new goal more focused on measuring how well we helped an exporter achieve their export strategy. This creates a better incentive for our officers.” 

The most satisfying part of the process, in Gallagher’s view, was hearing from staff after the plan was circulated. “Being a jaded government guy from way back, I was expecting polite applause and that people would put it on the shelf with the others,” he says. “But I was very surprised to have people I don’t know personally from the administrative staff . . . come up and say, ‘For the first time in my government career I can see how what I’m doing fits into the broader picture.’ ”

AN OUTSIDER VIEW

No plan of such ambition could fail to attract criticism. Robert Shea, a principal at Grant Thornton who worked on agency performance agendas in the George W. Bush White House, finds plenty to like about the department’s plan, but he also has concerns.

While many of the “future indicators for which we have no current measurement are outcome-oriented, many of the key indicators are not,” Shea says. The objective of growing a more productive, agile and high-value manufacturing sector, for example, lists as key indicators dollar amounts of co-investment by nonfederal sources and the number of businesses using NIST research facilities. Even though they are described as “outcomes that we can measure now, they are not outcomes,” Shea says. “They are activities or inputs, a traditional trap into which strategic plans fall. The risk is that we never get to the future indicators and have to make do with what we can already measure.”

Shea also takes issue with the plan’s vow to strengthen the nation’s digital economy by championing policies that will maximize the potential of the Internet, expanding broadband capacity and enhancing cybersecurity. He notes it does not mention entities outside Commerce responsible for dealing with this major issue, and he thinks such indicators of progress as the numbers of products integrating the cybersecurity framework and the number of citations of the framework are inadequate.

Shea would also recommend more collaboration with other agencies. But on balance, he finds Commerce’s effort concrete, measurable and succinct, especially the layout of the summary document. “Perhaps the best thing about the plan,” he says, is the areas “the department hopes to gather data for in the future. This acknowledges that some things are damn hard to measure, but if they can find a way, we’ll all have a better sense of whether or not the objectives are being achieved.” 

Gallagher confesses to having “spent zero time comparing Commerce’s plan with those of other agencies.” The chief reason, he says, is that his team’s strategy is focused on “how helps it helps the Commerce Department manage better, and the other agencies’ plans aren’t germane to that.”

But he is proud that the plan is used in daily meetings and quoted by
Pritzker when she speaks to business leaders, many of whom, Gallagher says, “look at this plan and get it—they see how it works and they see themselves in it.” Both externally and internally, he adds, “this feels more tangible, more real.”

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