Departing Commerce secretary laments government's 'aversion to failure'

Tom Williams/Newscom
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, in a valedictory address of sorts, spoke of a need for clear metrics in program evaluation and called for federal managers to overcome "an aversion to failure and risk," speaking Thursday at an event sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service.

Locke, who has been tapped as the next U.S. ambassador to China, was introduced with praise for making "government smarter and more efficient" in remarks by federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients. He said Locke had successfully transferred to Washington the "relentless focus on getting results" he had displayed as governor of Washington state.

"There is a misguided strain among the public and in the corridors of Congress that government service is somehow inconsequential or worse," Locke said. "But if government is performing well, America performs well. If there is a tornado or a factory moves overseas, whom do people turn to?" The answer he gave included Labor Department grants, aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and loans from the Small Business Administration.

The keys to successful agency leadership, he said, are to set clear goals and to prioritize. "There's never enough money to do it all, so it's better to do a few well." Setting high-performance "stretch goals" is necessary to "force people to re-imagine how to do their jobs -- you almost have to blow up the system and start from scratch, it's creative destruction," he said.

And with today's tough economy "challenging us to go the extra mile," he said, employees "can't be afraid to take risks" in reorganizing to get a job done. "They must know they will never be hung out to dry if they fall short of their goal as long as they've acted in good faith and ethically," Locke said.

He criticized some in Congress for framing the current budget debate in terms of "what can we cut," rather than "what is most critical to ensure the success of core programs" that people expect from government, an agenda that, when he was a governor, included preservation of the "social safety net."

Examples of the "customer driven" approach used both in his state and federal work include cross-training within bureaus and with other agencies to give businesspeople a single "contact point" to spare them redundant meetings and travel time. Smaller bureaus within Commerce are now better connected through the CommerceConnect program, a pilot that began in Michigan in 2009 and is now offering such "one-stop shopping" in 16 regions, he said.

Most central inside Commerce has been a data-based approach to program management to assure "accountability, oversight and transparency." The "linchpin," he said, is a program evaluation "balanced score card" that focuses on "customer service, organization excellence and workforce excellence." In the area of acquisitions, for example, Locke said "there is too much of a disconnect between those who write the requirements and those who actually procure the systems or material."

Results should be monitored regularly so that course corrections can be made, he said, and the metrics agreed upon ahead of time to avoid results seen as inconclusive. For example, when Commerce set out to help consumers make the transition from analog television to digital, some officials suggested measuring results by how many coupons for purchasing digital equipment were shipped. Locke said, no, the real metric was how many households continued access to TV signals.

The examples of successes within Commerce that Locke cited include the elimination in the 2012 budget of 16 "low-priority" programs' using performance-based budget acquisition reform, which he said has saved a $250 million. The 2010 census, which, he said, was called "the government program most likely to fail," came in at 25 percent under budget and returned $1.9 billion to the Treasury Department. In technology incubators, average time to process a grant application was six to seven months at start of this administration, but now, as of January 2011, it is down to 18 business days. And the average time the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is taking to examine an application -- an "outrageous" 38 months at the start of the Obama administration -- is now down to 28 months, he said, with a future target of 18 to 20 months.

Locke was asked whether he had earned enough support from the business community to fend off proposals by some conservatives to abolish the Commerce Department. "They would say it's absolutely vital," he said, adding that businesses are more aware than others of how much they rely, for example, on the National Weather Service. "Boeing and [General Electric] have sales force overseas, but small and medium-sized ones do not," so they depend his department. Only 1 percent of U.S. firms export, he noted, and of those, 58 percent export to only one country. So Commerce can help them expand to additional countries.

Nothing is perfect, Locke said, and more progress is still needed to achieve quality management, particularly in efforts to involve career staff and mid-level managers to give them a sense of "ownership, pride andsustainability." To overcome the "fear of being lopped off at the knees," agency leaders need to "recognize when teams have held to their goals" and to "celebrate and spread the word" about successes.

As Locke's replacement, President Obama has nominated utility executive John Bryson.

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