Fixing Reform

Want good government? Get good agencies.

Like President Obama, the past two administrations pushed governmentwide management reform efforts. Bill Clinton had his reinventing government initiative, which focused on getting agencies to use technology better, while George W. Bush had the President's Management Agenda, which featured e-government as one of its five pillars.

So it wasn't surprising when Obama's outgoing budget director, Peter R. Orszag, recently told the Center for American Progress, in a speech highlighting Obama's management agenda, that "closing the IT gap is perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government." It was a bit more surprising when he said: "Indeed, the IT gap is the key differentiator between our effort to modernize and reform government and those that have come before."

A focus on IT obviously is not new. Fixing IT has been a Sisyphean task at the White House for at least 18 years. What would distinguish this administration's effort would be demonstrable success at making government writ large an effective IT user. The Clinton and Bush administrations' technology efforts certainly had some successes, but the litany of failed IT projects that continues to plague agencies shows that overall IT management reform didn't work.

It might be that any governmentwide effort is doomed. Why? The most the Office of Management and Budget or any central agency can do is set policy. That's also true of many Cabinet departments, which often are just amalgamations of unique operating agencies. It's the managers in those agencies whose work decides whether an IT project fails or succeeds.

The Veterans Health Administration, once the poster child of poor management, became a model of health care delivery during the 1990s, largely through its use of technology, Orszag noted in his speech. VHA sustained its good reputation through the 2000s as well. Why? Because the agency had strong leaders who made smart decisions, starting with Ken Kizer, VHA chief in 1994. The agency's open source electronic patient records system has become the standard for hospitals worldwide.

Other agencies had similar renaissances, including the Internal Revenue Service -- which had effective leaders in Charles Rossotti and Mark Everson from 1997 to 2007. The tax collection agency is not yet an IT management role model, but it has significantly boosted electronic filing and processing of returns during the past decade. One big problem for the IRS is it has churned through chief information officers and modernization project managers so often that a steady hand has been lacking.

Governmentwide reform efforts might have helped on the margins, but the keys to successful turnarounds are found within the individual agencies. OMB can issue memoranda and circulars and policies on management issues, and other central players can do the same in an effort to provide leadership direction, but in the end the senior executives, mid-level managers and front-line supervisors are the ones who make or break reform efforts. Supporting promising managers by clearing procedural hurdles and bureaucratic obstacles might be the most useful ways top administration officials can promote good government. Managers often find central agencies more of a hindrance than a help in their efforts to make their operations run more smoothly and effectively.

Governmentwide policy matters. But agency-level management matters more, and individual managers matter most of all.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years.