Cutting Red Tape: It's Time to Sweat the Small Stuff

Large program waste is easy to see, but don't overlook the daily complexities.

As budget reductions take hold and the federal workforce is reduced, the government will inevitably focus on process and other improvements to achieve more with less. One area of inefficiency agencies seem to overlook is the unnecessary complexity of daily activity in management practices. The work and approval process in many agencies has become so complex that a simple hiring decision, procurement action, budget approval or external communication can rarely be executed effectively and efficiently. Complexity reduction doesn’t require large-scale organizational transformation, it just requires agencies to focus on reducing waste and assuring valuable resources are being put toward the most critical functions of the organizations.Bureaucracy should be a term for explaining governance, not a synonym for red tape. 

What is Complexity Reduction?

Complexity in organizations is created by the number of steps, resources or decisions required to complete a function or comply with a rule. Complexity reduction is the process of streamlining management practices, removing resource wasters and addressing management inefficiencies to create an environment that is both efficient and effective. 

Unfortunately in government, complexity is an inherent part of our system of checks and balances. It is imperative to ensure standards are being met, regulations are adhered to and political correctness is maintained. While these mechanisms keep agencies and employees accountable, they are often woefully inefficient. Current bureaucratic systems must be audited in order to eliminate excessive process redundancy and reduce the unnecessary use of resources. Often there is so much fear built into the culture of agencies that we forget managers, executives and political appointees are hired to make decisions consistent with laws, regulations and leadership-stated expectations. The governance system must empower decision-makers, hold them accountable and allow efficient and effective execution of their service to the American people.

In my work as a management consultant, I’ve seen astonishing examples of bureaucratic complexity within a wide variety of government organizations. I once reviewed a process that required 11 signatures for a document to be released. Once a document was completed, it took an average of four months to obtain the 11 signatures. In interviewing all 11 people, it was found that in 10 years of using the process, not one edit was made by the final nine reviewers. After reducing the review process to require only four pairs of eyes on the document, the office was able to approve documents 81 percent faster. With the new process, it took only a few weeks to obtain the signatures necessary to release a document, ultimately saving millions of dollars.

I witnessed another example of inefficiency during an agency internal review board. During that meeting, an executive was required to present and obtain approval for a program’s funding. This was repeated each quarter even though the funds in question were appropriated funds specific to the program, meaning the funds could only to be used for that particular program per the budget passed by Congress. Often the seven-member review board would delay meetings when a member or two could not attend. On three occasions over two years, the executive had to stop work on the program, place government staff on other projects and institute a stop-work order on contracts, resulting in lost productivity and expertise, increased cost and an eight-month delay in completion. So the question here is, as long as the chief financial officer is watching and applying already approved funds to the right accounts, why was this cumbersome approval process necessary? Why did no one understand the impact and possess the appropriate level of sensitivity or urgency? Is this added red tape worth the negative impact this delay had on program stakeholders and agency outcomes?

These are only two of the thousands of examples of government practices that must be simplified and streamlined. Imagine the resources that would be freed up if the government embraced the private sector’s approach to duplicative practices—removing any barriers that slow their ability to bring products and services to market. Complexity reduction in government would have equally beneficial resultsstarting with enabling existing employees to do more work, more efficiently. 

Small Big Bang Change

So how do we begin streamlining government practices that have entrenched complexities? Agencies are notoriously unfocused on the subtleties of management and bureaucratic system inefficiencies. Agencies have some experience with process and program reviews using methods such as Business Process Reengineering or Lean Six Sigma, but they are not often applied to daily agency operations. Often large program waste is easy to see, but it takes a keen eye to review agency functions and identify management wasters, over-applied resources, or small inefficiencies in day-to-day activity that if streamlined can add up to big savings. It takes courage and focus to abandon age-old procedures, realign resources and functions, place them where they belong and then adjust the organization to maximize productivity. If this is done correctly, roles are clarified, people are trained, and the appropriate system of effective bureaucracy and streamlined checks and balances can be put in place. 

Agencies must conduct management audits that assess the current environment and make clear and effective recommendations that result in streamlined management of the agency. Agency chief operating officers should be tasked with this endeavor and also be required to share their results and best practices with other agencies. If done right, it will also result in a changed culture and well developed and accountable managers and executives.

Complexity reduction is a critical but not often addressed part of creating efficiency in organizations. If done right, functions will be performed better, faster and at less cost. More can be accomplished, and government employees and managers will feel trusted, empowered and inspired to do their best work. This is not a “do more with less” philosophy; this is a “do more right” philosophy. It requires capable managers and staff with excellent judgment and intuition, an agencywide willingness to stick to it, and a culture ready to abandon antiquated practices in order to focus on successful results.

Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and vice chair of the Government Transformation Initiative.

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