Can We Create a High Quality Government?

By John Kamensky

June 16, 2014

Good government observers, such Don Kettl at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, have written succinctly about some of the management challenges of the Obama administration. Kettl asks: “Why has the Obama administration struggled so much with performance management? A big part of the answer is the gulf between the West Wing and the OMB management team.”

The administration seems to be bridging this gulf. The recent confirmation hearing for Shaun Donovan, tapped to head the Office of Management and Budget, highlights his interest in better management and implementation. According to news reports, Donovan would use OMB’s special position in the government to ensure more and better coordination on programs and projects.

In addition, the White House has converted a temporary position for coordinating the implementation of health care reform into a permanent one with an expanded scope—deputy chief of staff for policy implementation—and named veteran White House staffer Kristie Canegallo to the job. According to The Washington Post, her role also will be to handle high profile issues such as “reforming how the federal government procures technology, veterans affairs and immigration policy, as well as national security topics such as data privacy and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.” She’s working with OMB on these issues.

The management agenda’s focus on culture. Donovan testified that he looks forward to leading implementation of the administration’s management agenda, announced in March, which includes a focus on the culture of the federal service. But culture is a wide expanse. The agenda references initiatives such as better hiring, a focus on career senior executives, and more training. But improving culture goes beyond these elements. Several management observers offer some specific approaches.

At a recent meeting of the Administrative Conference of the U.S., Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama offered insights on where agencies and OMB might focus efforts to improve the federal culture by creating a focus on quality. He is not, however, harkening back to the Total Quality Management fervor of the 1980s and 1990s.

“Quality of government is more important than the size of government,” Fukuyama said. “Administrative capacity is key to success in achieving social goals.” His Stanford institute on governance has been examining what constitutes high quality government around the world and identified four approaches to making that assessment: procedural measures, capacity measures, measures of output, and measures of autonomy.

In his research, Fukuyama said that two of the four approaches really matter: Measures of capacity, such as the degree of professionalization among civil servants, and measures of bureaucratic autonomy.

But their significance when rating whether a government is high quality differs. “Low-income countries are advised to reduce bureaucratic autonomy, while high-income ones seek to increase it,” he said. In Fukuyama construct, the U.S. government’s strategy should be to focus on creating greater capacity, along with providing greater autonomy to act.

Creating capacity. In the United States, Fukuyama notes, agencies seen as having a high capacity workforce with strong professional credentials—such as NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—are often granted more autonomy to act. But he cautions that poorly crafted, highly detailed congressional mandates, which stem from a distrust of bureaucracy, can undermine both capacity and autonomy. He points to the failure to balance the right degree of bureaucratic autonomy with the right degree of competence, noting that we cannot talk about increasing autonomy without improving capacity. He recommends civil service reform as the solution.

A recent General Accountability Office report highlighted the lack of administrative capacity in the human capital community, noting it is highly fragmented and the management tools are inflexible. “In the face of limited budgets, some agencies are reducing hiring, limiting training, offering employee buyouts and providing early retirement packages,” the report said. “Without careful attention to strategic and workforce planning and other approaches to managing and engaging personnel, the reduced investments in human capital can have lasting, detrimental effects on the capacity of an agency’s workforce to meet its mission.” In response to GAO, the Office of Personnel Management agreed to place greater emphasis on strengthening coordination and leadership capacity to address governmentwide human capital issues.

Granting autonomy. But how do you address the second dimension—increased autonomy? It can’t happen without top leadership support, and granting greater administrative autonomy to the career workforce may be seen as risky in the current political environment. But there may be a way to do this in a manner seen as acceptable, on an agency-by-agency basis but not necessarily across the board.

If Fukuyama’s insights of capacity and autonomy are viewed from the perspective of individuals rather than institutions, another management observer may offer some further elements for action. Former White House speech writer Daniel Pink observes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that self-direction—autonomy—is a natural inclination and is a key element of self-motivation.

We want all agencies—and the individuals that comprise agencies—to be motivated in their mission. Pink says three elements create a successful approach for individuals (and organizations): motivation, mastery and purpose. All three of these elements are gauged in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted annually, so there is a measure of progress and a pointer as to which agencies may be ready for greater administrative autonomy. One example, where the leadership seems to be placing a priority on increasing motivation, is the Commerce Department. Secretary Penny Pritzker has declared that increasing employee engagement with mission will be one of her top priorities.

So this might be a potential approach for a joint White House and OMB effort to improve the culture of the federal government—focus at the agency level on creating the capacity and granting the autonomy to get things done. And in the end, maybe we’ll see the high quality government envisioned by Fukuyama.

(Image via Tupungato/

By John Kamensky

June 16, 2014