The chief impediments to streamlining federal functions are “parochial stakeholder interests” and a lack of urgency among managers implementing laws and programs, U.S. Controller Danny Werfel told a business group on Wednesday.
The solutions include relying more on independent commissions in deciding how to “rightsize and reshape” government as well as “changing the culture to channel the urgency” commonly felt during a crisis into everyday situations.
Speaking at a forum on transforming government for the 21st century sponsored by the Business Roundtable and Governing magazine, Werfel also stressed the importance of pending legislation to restore historical authority to the president to reorganize agencies. “Congress has our bill,” he said, “and the fact that the president felt strong enough to transmit it says he is committed to reshaping and resizing government. Every tool we can use should be at our disposal.”
Werfel examined the notion that leaders in Washington photographed at bill-signing ceremonies “are not there with same verve and attention on the tougher job of implementation of the law.” Regardless of whether there’s enough focus on execution, he said, “government transformations tend to move slowly,” in part due to aversion to risk. He cited automation, noting that it took a long time for federal officials to accept a digital signature as legitimate.
In efforts to sell off unneeded federal real estate, he said, there’s been progress, but not enough. “We’re lagging behind,” Werfel said. “The federal government has offices in nearly every county, a pattern that emerged in the 1950s and 70s, but citizens are no longer served in a bricks-and-mortar way.”
Similarly, he pointed to “pockets of progress” in the government’s efforts at leveraging shared services and common infrastructure, as in cloud technology and the economies of scale in “buying once, using many times. But there’s still a significant opportunity for efficiencies, and if we don’t avail ourselves, it will slow us down,” he said.
Werfel said one of “two inflection points that impede progress” is the existence of “competing stakeholder interests in big ticket areas” such as reorganization, eliminating programs and downsizing, personnel reform and selling off real estate. “Say you have two buildings near one another, why can’t we combine them?” he asked. Often, because of resistance from a lawmaker, the mayor, a local business or the community itself.
To make the interests converge, Werfel proposed more use of “independent mechanisms to drive smarter decisions, such as the Defense Department’s Base Closing and Realignment Commission. “Not that it was perfect, and you can’t over-rely on it” he said, but the concept was a game-changer that could help people understand how to rightsize and reshape because “the commissioners’ jobs are not tied to the criticism they get.”
Werfel’s idea of introducing more urgency into routine management came from experience during 15 years at the Office of Management and Budget witnessing the response to the Millennium’s Y2K computer threat; the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the 2005 Hurricane Katrina; the 2007 financial meltdown, the 2010 Gulf oil spill; and the more recent threat of government shutdown, he said.
But the most instructive experience, he said, was implementation of the 2009 Recovery Act, doling out federal stimulus money around the country under emergency conditions while minimizing waste. “That was an example of the folks at signing ceremony walking right to the control room, with boots on the ground from the president, the vice president, the secretaries and deputy secretaries,” Werfel said. “That urgency brought out the best in accountability and opportunities for collaboration. It had us doing business differently, without cutting corners. It compressed six months down to six weeks, driving through those competing stakeholders in real time,” he said.
With the recession hitting hard, the pressure was intense, Werfel said. “I watched small mistakes my team made go from Government Executive to Good Morning America, even to the Stephen Colbert show.”
Asked why the government hadn’t made more progress replacing legacy information technology systems, Werfel said there are resource and budget issues, but also “a track record of a lot of cultural and emotional toll among people who’ve seen many systems fail.” An environment encouraging modernization is vital, he said, but he has also asked agencies to get more out of their legacy systems, to make sure all are clear on what is to be gained by replacing them. Modernization “won’t go from zero to 100 mph overnight,” he said.
The second Obama administration, Werfel said, might involve improved leveraging of the work of the Government Accountability Office and inspectors general in identifying inefficiencies and determining which parochial interests are legitimate. Best-practice sharing among agencies “is also a second-term imperative,” he said. “In the first term, groundwork was laid for a lot of opportunity for a return on investment, smart investment in things like co-location, innovations, shared services, and a digital strategy for mobile devices,” he said. “We have to decide how expensive [it will be and] how long it will take to raise the customer service level.”
Werfel told the business executives they could play a key role advocating for modernization and working through the President’s Management Advisory Board.
Business Roundtable president and former Michigan Gov. John Engler introduced Werfel and expressed support for reorganization authority, saying it was “sunk” last year because of disagreements over which agencies would end up in the Commerce Department.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Danny Werfel's title. He is the U.S. controller.