Leading the Charge

The answer to government’s fiscal woes is total transformation.

Congress and the White House did little to fix the fiscal crisis as the statutory Dec. 31, 2012, deadline came and went. Aside from a few tax hikes, they essentially kicked the can down the road to the next session of Congress. Federal agencies continue to do the nation’s business the way they always have, and Americans wonder what will happen next.  

Most recognize the need for fiscally responsible solutions that reduce spending and increase revenue in the short term. But critical reforms are necessary to manage the deficit, ensure social programs are capable of achieving their intended purpose, fix the broken tax code, update the civil service system and improve the budget process. Distressingly few political leaders are addressing the inescapable fact that we must transform the way government works to ensure it can serve the American people within its means. That requires lower costs, fewer and shared resources, and reduced duplication and waste.

The current path is not sustainable. It jeopardizes the nation’s standard of living, its position on the world stage and government’s ability to serve its citizens. Changes will not be easy and everyone will feel the impact, but leaders cannot fixate on the immediate crisis and hope for a magic wand to fix the future.

We have an opportunity now to transform government into an efficient, results-driven, nation-centric institution. This would save money, eliminate waste, produce measurable outcomes, increase collaboration across agencies and improve public services.

Since the enactment of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, agencies have become more data-centric in their focus on performance. Yet leaders and managers do not always make effective data-driven decisions—a concept that is not well understood. Duplication of programs and infrastructure abound, but technology can help significantly. Employees are retiring faster than agencies are hiring, resulting in potential loss of critical knowledge. But this also is a chance to develop more effective ways of conducting work.

These factors and more provide the opportunity to take a fresh look at what government does and how it does it.

We have to ask what business the federal government should be in, what state and local governments should support and what citizens should do for themselves. Then we can address the remaining issues. Consider these examples:

  • Do all farm subsidy programs still make sense? Some could be eliminated or made more effective.
  • The government spends $18 billion a year on 47 job-training programs across nine agencies. Are those programs still effective? Reducing administrative costs by 3 percent through a centralized management approach would save more than $500 million.
  • Most agencies operate their own human resources systems. Since there is a central repository of HR, payroll and training data, shared services could boost efficiency, reduce risk and save millions in contract and duplicated dollars.
  • The government spends $62.5 billion annually on food assistance programs. Streamlining them would cut down on fraud, waste and abuse, and save up to $1 billion.
  • How about replacing the arcane one-year federal budget process with a streamlined multiyear cycle? Managers spend vast amounts of resources, only to start over as soon as the budget cycle is complete. Some programs are stopped after a short period, wasting money already spent. Continuing resolutions end up costing agencies more and limiting their ability to execute key programs. 

Political leaders and agency executives—along with the private, nonprofit and academic sectors—must come together to reduce costs by providing the right services efficiently and effectively.

Congress and the president should establish a statutory nonpartisan commission on government transformation. The long-standing, bipartisan, all-inclusive panel would drive a consistent methodology for reviewing agencies, programs and infrastructure, and make recommendations for necessary changes.

This would not be a short-term endeavor such as the 2010 Simpson-Bowles Commission. Despite its comprehensive effort to address fiscal policies, Simpson-Bowles was not a statutory commission and lacked authority to ensure a return on investment. Likewise, the Government Accountability Office conducts vital program reviews, but does not have the personnel or authority to direct change.

A government transformation commission could systematically review programs based on specified criteria and a consistent methodology. It would report regularly to the president and Congress and make recommendations for meaningful reform. The commission would retain oversight to ensure results, collaborating with and educating agency leaders and managers. The panel would provide at least a tenfold return on investment.

The Government Transformation Initiative is working to establish such a commission. The effort is led by a nonprofit, nonpartisan, transparent coalition of corporations, associations and academic organizations.

From the top down, agencies must think and act differently. Significant changes must combine with a new way of leading that views program effectiveness as a critical management tool. Leaders must ensure results are measured and capacity is built around efficient, sustainable systems. They must not be afraid to make reforms or to eliminate programs that cease to add value.

Federal managers must be willing to share resources, systems and effective models across agencies and programs. They should actively look at how other agencies or other sectors do things and adopt those systems and infrastructure rather than reinventing the wheel. Congress must be willing to adjust appropriations and authorizations to support cross-agency initiatives that avoid redundancy.

The commission can provide the catalyst for this kind of systemic change.

Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence Inc., and a founding member of the Government Transformation Initiative. He can be reached at sgoodrich@center4oe.com.