To address our major management challenges, we need a better approach

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

An annual rite of passage for federal agencies went virtually unreported recently – the date by which they are required to post audited financial statements. Buried in those reports are lists of major management challenges identified by Inspectors General. This year, like last year and the year before that and the year before that the top challenges are:

  • IT Security;
  • Acquisition Management;
  • Financial Management; and
  • Human Capital Management.

These same issues have also been featured for many years in GAO’s biennial High-Risk List, set to be released again this winter. Grant Thornton conducts a number of extensive surveys of chief management officers in partnership with some of the leading public sector advocacy organizations, like the Association of Government Accountants, the Partnership for Public Service, TechAmerica, and the Professional Services Council. Respondents to these surveys reveal that these same challenges are prominent issues for them, as well. The ranked order may be slightly different, but Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, and Chief Acquisition Officers all cite IT Security, Acquisition Management, Financial Management, and Human Capital Management as areas that put their missions at risk.

Chief Financial Officers, for instance, in a survey conducted with the Association of Government Accountants, report that providing financial management services to their customers and human capital management, especially training, are among their greatest management challenges.

Chief Human Capital Officers, in a survey we conducted with the Partnership for Public Service, told us that, in addition to managing within tight budgets, high turnover, inadequate succession planning, and competency gaps are their biggest challenges.

Acquisition professionals, in a survey we sponsor with the Professional Services Council, cite human capital capabilities and talent, as well as managing with fewer resources, as their prime challenges.

To create a fuller picture of the challenges affecting government, Grant Thornton’s Global Public Sector inventoried management challenges listed by agency Inspectors General and identified major management challenges affecting the government’s largest agencies and they are listed in the table below.

After so many years investigating and addressing these issues, why do they persist? The answer is: we don’t have a consistent way of measuring our success addressing these problems. We lack a simple framework with clear goals, transparent progress reporting, and well-defined responsibility and accountability for solving them.

Such a framework needs to be developed with these persistent issues in mind to avoid continually repeating history and spinning our proverbial wheels. We cannot continue to consider these recurring problems “business as usual.” We need a better way of tackling them. Agency strategic plans, being updated now in accordance with the new schedule set by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, gives us a perfect chance to define a clear and consistent way to measure agency progress addressing these common challenges. OMB and/or Congress should jump at this opportunity!

Srikant Sastry is the Managing Principal of the Global Public Sector, responsible for the planning, coordination and execution of the Grant Thornton’s government business. He also leads the Public Sector Strategy Group for Grant Thornton International. In his 25 years serving the public sector, he has led activity-based cost management, budget, and performance improvement projects for several public sector entities and he has led target costing and process improvement efforts. He has expertise leading budgeting and performance measurement processes and solutions.