Making Government Faster

Sashkin/Shutterstock.com

With sequestration ripping through the federal budgets, tools for increasing the speed at which agencies function take on greater importance, according to Norman Dong, the Office of Management and Budget official who recently assumed the duties of White House controller.

“As budgets get tighter , we realize it’s going to cause all of us to raise our game and create greater transparency about what it’s costing,” Dong said Wednesday at the rollout of a collection of how-to essays on “fast government” assembled by the IBM Center for the Business of Government. “The silver lining is the tighter budgets bring a look to greater efficiency.”

In an era of frozen federal pay, government must “do more to attract the best and brightest using more than salary,” Dong said. “You look at agencies and see some of the most complex organizations, so we need to make sure there is a good pipeline, make sure the process is more flexible” so managers can scale up and down as needed. “When we have a spotlight on agency performance, it creates a healthy incentive for productivity gains,” Dong said. Another healthy incentive is transparency and competitiveness as citizens seek more information online, he said.

“Though the public sector will never work like the private sector, there is no shortage of opportunities and tools in government—it’s a question of incentives,” Dong said, speaking to a panel discussing the report by industry and academic specialists titled “Fast Government: Accelerating Service Quality While Reducing Cost and Time.”

Dong cited the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a success story in speeding up government. He worked at FEMA in 2005, when the agency fumbled its response to Hurricane Katrina, creating “an urgency to never let that sluggish response happen again.” He pointed to the visible improvements in the agency’s handling of this week’s tornadoes in Oklahoma, and last year’s hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“It’s especially visible in housing inspections,” Dong said, reporting that agencies in 2005 performed 7,500 inspections over 15 days but can now do more than 20,000 in the same period.

Another success story was offered by Earl Devany, the former head of the Recovery Board now retired, who described his team’s effort in 2009 to track federal emergency stimulus spending by “standing up a new agency and two precedent-breaking websites during a time of economic stress.

“We broke a record in getting it up in six months,” he said.

Using technology from the intelligence and law enforcement fields, the Recovery Board sought to protect $787 billion (later $840 billion) going out the door while minimizing fraud. “We created a paradigm shift from protecting to preventing fraud,” Devaney said.

The geospatial tracking technology allowed a team of only 10 analysts—“not the football field-size group I expected” -- to get the time it takes to produce an analysis of a problem from five days, to five hours, down to one hour, he said.

The key to fast government is exploiting technology to make reducing time a performance and accountability metric in government, according to report editor Charles Prow. “Any time you take time out of the mission value equation, it’s a good thing, and you will improve service and reduce costs,” he said. Examples of ways to reduce or eliminate “non-value-added activities in government” cited in the report include creating a citizen-facing mobile services delivery strategy; video game-based approaches; and new “security and privacy actions that enable speed in government.”

Some agency representatives in attendance expressed skepticism, noting the vastness of government’s bureaucracy, vaguely understood problems and long hiring times that discourage young employees who want to make a difference.

Philip Schaenman, now with the Urban Institute, warned that speed can create more mistakes. “You don’t win a chess game by speed,” he said, citing a study showing that U.S. firefighting teams had the fastest response times compared with other nations but worked with far less success on advance prevention of fires.

Robert Shea, an OMB official under President George W. Bush and now a principal with Grant Thornton, warned of a “human capital crisis in government, an environment in which no one’s getting a pay raise, record retirements and rhetoric of an underperforming workforce.” No matter how good the technology, Shea said, “there aren’t enough highly engaged people. On both sides of the aisle, but particularly among Republicans, we need to encourage an engaged workforce that is decently paid and treated with respect and honor while delivering at whatever speed we want them to.”

(Image via Sashkin/Shutterstock.com)

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