Cross-agency leadership is the key to progress on major goals.
One of the things I was hoping to hear from the Republican presidential debate, but knew I wouldn’t, was how the candidates would actually get done what they were promising to get done. The subject sure won’t get anyone noticed, especially with Donald Trump on stage. It probably won’t get mentioned much during the campaign or even after the inauguration. But you can’t understate how critical management is to the success or failure of a president’s priorities.
Better management of the government enterprise – government agencies and entities working across silos – was the subject of a daylong workshop sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Current and former, Republican and Democratic, career and political employees spent the day crafting recommendations to improve the ability of agencies to work together to achieve common goals and solve common problems. There was a lot of consensus in the room on what needs to change in order to get agencies working together.
No major presidential goal can be achieved without the cooperation of multiple agencies. That’s why it’s important that an administration lay out clear goals for what it wants to accomplish and which agencies will be responsible for achieving them. A strategic plan that sets goals that cross multiple agencies and lists the agencies accountable can help highlight genuine priorities for the government enterprise. It’s also a good way to begin to set expectations for transparency early in an administration.
Laying out clear goals, of course, is not enough. We have to track how well we are doing and hold government officials accountable for making progress. Transparently report results. Celebrate success when it happens. But when adequate progress is not made, leaders must be held accountable. If they know they’ll be held accountable, they’ll do more of what it takes to ensure success.
If you want enterprisewide initiatives to be successful, they have to have adequate resources. Not unlimited resources, but enough to ensure they don’t compete with other initiatives for people and money. Either through participating agency contributions or direct appropriations, priority initiatives need funding to be successful. In a time of declining resources, at least on the discretionary side of the budget, administrations will have to fight to ensure their enterprisewide initiatives get adequate funding.
Speaking of resources, agencies are spending a lot of time and money on back office functions – finance, personnel, information technology – that could be refocused on more important program priorities. There has been some progress consolidating agency management functions in shared services, but we could do a lot more. Billions could be saved if we took inventory of common functions across the government and relieved agencies of the need to fund and manage activities that aren’t directly related to their missions.
Agencies not only have to work together to achieve common goals, but they also have to work every day with a dizzying number of congressional committees and oversight entities. One approach is to ignore those constituencies and hope for the best. But that strategy has never worked. Agencies and the administration should invest the time and effort to gain buy-in that can help its initiatives succeed. Congressional stakeholders won’t always agree with how agencies are going about their cross-cutting initiatives, which invariably fall under the jurisdiction of multiple committees, but the increased trust resulting from open communication and frequent consultation will pay huge dividends.
Leadership is perhaps the most important factor in the success or failure of an initiative that depends on the government enterprise. In government, like in most things, the more players involved the more difficult it is to get something done. A capable leader can get the team of agencies on the same page and help overcome bureaucratic barriers that would otherwise stall progress.
It’s heartening to see so many organizations developing recommendations and helping the next administration, of whichever party, hit the ground running. There is wide agreement among them – the National Academy of Public Administration, the Professional Services Council, not to mention the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government – that getting the execution right is almost as important as getting the policy right. Policies, no matter how good they are, won’t be successful without good execution. That’s especially true when you have to rely on the government enterprise to achieve them.
Robert Shea is a principal in Grant Thornton’s Public Sector Practice and chairman of the National Academy of Public Administration.
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