Why are new government initiatives so hard to implement?

Why are new government initiatives so hard to implement? It seems that governance is hard, and “checklist compliance” often doesn’t work.

Change is hard and resistance often follows. Paying attention to human behavior is at the heart of getting the desired results. The key seems to be building in the behavioral routines that institutionalize the use of data for decision making, and not simply for compliance.

In the July 2016 issuance of OMB Circular A-123 we saw that recognition with the expanded focus from financial controls to now include enterprise risk management. As Mike Wetklow from the Office of Federal Financial Management noted, “internal control is not a compliance or documentation exercise, simply put internal control is good management that supports improved mission results. We are more interested in a thoughtful analysis of risks rather than a compliance process that only leads to outcomes that don’t make sense.”

 He added “The goal of Circular A-123 is to modernize efforts to implement the FMFIA (Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act) so that it will evolve our existing internal control framework to be more value-added and provide for stronger risk management for the purpose of improving mission delivery.”

Bingo! The proof will be in the implementation and governance…and the results. 

In implementing A-123, it’s worth a look at intriguing research on government performance improvement efforts undertaken by Donald Moynihan, a professor of public affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his collaborator, Alex Kroll, examined the current performance system spawned by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010. As reported in Government Executive, they found that employees who were exposed to GPRA Modernization Act “routines” were more likely to report using performance data to make decisions. Moreover, the quality of the routines, such as mandated quarterly reviews, were associated with higher rates of performance information use. The evidence also suggested that the positive effects were not seen with predecessor legislative implementations (such as GPRA and the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART).

A-123 presents the opportunity to adopt some of this wisdom in our use of analytics and decision making by understanding, implementing and embedding behavioral routines.

The key term here is behavior. Behavior is surprisingly resistant to change when relying solely on compliance checks (just ask the parent of any teenager!) Successful change managers address both the fact-based imperative and the need for built-in incentives to encourage positive change. The governance model is the foundation that supports key behavioral routines to build buy-in. An executive sponsor provides on-going demonstrations of the importance and usefulness of the change, to build and maintain change momentum.

Many a savvy change agent has sought out well established “anchor” processes that can be used as a low threat platform from which to improve. Anchor processes are simply those that are already established and require minimum modifications to deliver improved results.

Incremental change to existing behavior patterns can minimize resistance and establish momentum for improvement.  OMB Circular revisions provide just such launch platforms.

A-123, in particular, evolves our existing anchor processes of the internal control framework to be more value-added and to provide for stronger risk management for the purpose of improving mission delivery. Many agreed there was a need to integrate and coordinate internal control assessments. A-123 engages performance management, strategic management, risk management, and budget activities simultaneously.

There is a big opportunity for the implementation of A-123 to have significant, sustained impact on mission results. The research on performance improvement demonstrates the power of instilling behavioral routines that inform and support decision-making throughout affected processes.  Pushing off from this well-established internal controls platform, with new attention to integrated, coordinated, visible behavioral implementation routines promises to reduce the cost, real and human, to such improvement. It then becomes apparent that the information is crucial, that leaders attend to it, and that it informs mission-critical decisions. Congress, are you listening? 

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