The Federal Government Doesn’t Need Any More Big Ideas


Federal managers should move away from promoting performance reforms as cost-saving initiatives and instead focus on indicators that can draw the excitement of Congress and the White House, a public-sector management expert said on Tuesday.

The federal government has reached a point in which it does not want or need any more “big ideas,” Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland said at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government conference in Washington. Instead, federal executives should come up with key indicators that create presentable information to lawmakers and the president. 

Every administration comes into the White House thinking its performance improvement plan will save millions of dollars, Kettl said, but “it turns out the only way to save significant amounts of money in government is to do less of government.”

He added those in government “set ourselves up for trying to solve the wrong problem over and over again, and we end up with politicians who conclude too often ‘you know this performance stuff just doesn’t really matter.’”

Ultimately, this leads to a disconnect between lawmakers and federal managers, who are left wondering what happened to the support for their big initiatives. Marketing these reforms as big cost savers therefore is “undermining” the efforts to boost government performance, Kettl said.

Instead, government officials should use data in a way that creates a demand to fix problems.

“At some point, you have to have something that gets the president excited,” Kettl said. The current political climate, he added, has expanded the window to do exactly that.

“The battle between the West Wing and Congress is creating enormous opportunity for federal managers,” he told the audience. With the political focus on elections and partisan bickering, there is a “remarkable amount of maneuvering room” for feds tackle existing issues.

Additionally, the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act has, for the first time, put “all of government is on the same page, in sync doing the same thing at the same time,” with respect to creating and improving strategic planning.

Success, therefore, will not depend on creating the next big idea, but instead on taking advantage of existing metrics to rally support for the ideas that have already been hatched.

(Image via somchaij/

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