Washington's Eisenhower Executive Office Building houses many federal executives.

Washington's Eisenhower Executive Office Building houses many federal executives. Tupungato/Shutterstock.com

Can We Create a High Quality Government?

Improving the culture of federal service would be an essential step.

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/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.