Tomorrow’s Government

The 2016 presidential campaign is upon us, whether we like it or not.

As usual, the Republican candidates are aligning themselves on a spectrum ranging from “government is a necessary evil, and I’ll make it work more like the private sector” to “government is just evil, and I’ll cut it down to only what’s absolutely necessary.” The Democratic candidate towering over the rest of the party’s field is saying, in essence, “I don’t like bureaucracy any more than you do, but trust me, I know how to make government work.”

What we’re likely to hear precious little of for the next 18 months are specific ideas to rethink what government does and the way it does it. The management and operations of government, as critical as they are to effective functioning of the nation, are usually an afterthought in presidential campaigns.

Still, we decided with this issue of the magazine to give the candidates (and the people who already work in government) some things to chew over. So we put together a package of four essays under the general rubric of “Reimagining Government.” These pieces explore a series of ideas for rethinking how federal agencies go about their business. 

Some of the ideas are traditionally conservative: Eric Katz, for example, explores ways in which government could simply stop doing things that are no longer necessary—or in which multiple agencies are engaged in uncoordinated, duplicative efforts. But merely proposing to study whether or not the Tennessee Valley Authority should continue to exist as a federal entity, he found, is enough to cause a bipartisan backlash.

Katherine McIntire Peters makes the case that government could use some disruption to its standard operating procedures when it comes to acquiring and upgrading information technology systems. The good news (if you can call it that) is that the burgeoning list of high-profile technology failures may be forcing some fundamental changes to IT procurement.

Charlie Clark takes a look at a waxing and waning trend in back-office operations: sharing administrative functions, like payroll processing, across multiple agencies. In a penny-pinching environment, the shared services approach has taken on new urgency. But the real savings may not come until agencies do painful things like cutting staff after consolidating functions. 

In the last of the essays, Kellie Lunney peers into the future of the Senior Executive Service, government’s elite corps of top managers. There has been much talk, she writes, of reinvigorating the SES through such proposals as altering pay and performance-management systems and forcing executives to move from agency to agency throughout their careers. But none of this will make much difference, she argues, if government doesn’t find a way to close the growing trust gap between rank-and-file employees and career executives. 

Making the SES work, Lunney writes is everyone’s problem. The same could be said of making government work better generally and restoring its luster. There’s broad, bipartisan agreement on a range of actions to build high- performing federal organizations. All that’s needed is for the country’s political leaders to make such efforts a priority, and for career federal employees to embrace change and take their share of responsibility for fixing broken processes and systems.

The journey has already started with some small steps. It’ll be interesting to see where it leads in 2016 and beyond.

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