How Do You Do a Start-Up in the Government?

Leaders who have helped to stand up new agencies points to a number of lessons.

Government periodically creates new agencies to address particular issues of national concern. These can take a variety of forms, including entire new departments (such as the Department of Homeland Security), independent oversight organizations (such as the Directorate of National Intelligence), large components of other agencies (such as the Transportation Security Administration), and even entirely new small agencies (such as the Administrative Conference of the United States). The newest new agency, which will commence operations October 1st, is the National Background Investigations Bureau.  While new agencies have unique missions, they share a common experience of how to succeed as a start-up in the public sector. 

Earlier this summer, the IBM Center and the National Academy of Public Administration co-hosted a roundtable discussion among experts in the standup of a new government enterprise. The goal of the session was to draw out lessons learned and best practices from leaders who have successfully launched new organizations, in order to help those engaged in similar efforts now and in the future.  Roundtable participants shared many insights in a non-attribution setting. These insights are also relevant to existing agencies that go through mission, organizational, or operational changes, as may be the case across government during the transition to a new administration.

Below are key points from the discussion:

Focus on governance.  Ensure that all parts of the organization work together as a leadership and operational team. This is critical for clarity of mission and a strong management council helps align the agency from mission to back-office.

  • Make sure the operational mission is clear.
  • Integrate all governance councils with the operational mission.
  • Leverage experienced business partners in procurement, human resources, the general counsel, and finance to accomplish business goals.
  • Define all relevant policies both inward and outward, issuing governance to promote shared implementation in both inward and outward forums.

Establish leadership roles and responsibilities. Identify the appropriate skill sets for all leadership positions and include mission operators in decisions.

  • Know all authorities and who is responsible for each prior to standup.
  • Enhance communication and transparency by establishing a culture among leaders to put hidden agendas out in the open.

Establish a decision process. Define decision-making structures to ensure consistent decisions that align with those made during the planning stage for a new agency (e.g., by an agency transition team) with long-term leadership needs.

  • Identify key decisions for transition, make those decisions and proceed.
  • Keep work streams focused and moving forward.
  • Tie decisions to an integrated master calendar that shows what actions need to take place when.

Stand up operations rapidly. Leaders can’t fight every battle or create every capability up front--be prepared to start with the basics and move some to a later implementation phase.

  • Staff and stakeholders must clearly know who is in charge on day one and defined procedures must be in place (for procurements, HR actions, etc.).
  • Define success for initial stand up (what needs to be accomplished to go-live and what needs to be accomplished at key milestones downstream) day one, day 90, and year one.
  • Maintain day-one documents in a central repository and track items in progress. Address and communicate nuts and bolts: address, phone, email, website.
  • Personnel/hiring flexibilities can help, but they typically are only available for a limited time. take advantage of any temporary flexibilities to tap expertise from industry, non-profits, and higher education.
  • Procurement is a critical function to leverage private sector expertise, services, and systems to enable a rapid standup. Bring on an experienced procurement executive to ensure that key goals (in the form of service level agreements) are part of initial contracts.
  • Records management and equal employment opportunity functions are also critical for standup.
  • Work with the general counsel on a process for reviewing legal issues. Ensure that all offices understand the counsel’s role to make fact-based interpretations.
  • Define what functions and support can be leveraged from a central services organization like the Office of Personnel Management or the General Services Administration, and what functions to operate from within the new agency. Many functions can be developed prior to the initial standup by leveraging from a central services organization

Build a network with key stakeholders. This is critical to proactively addressing problems before they happen and building a constituency of key stakeholders, especially with Congress.

  • Maintain robust congressional relations.
  • Identify internal controls for audit and meet with auditors and oversight bodies (e.g., GAO, OMB) early to establish relationships.
  • Be ready for unexpected hurdles. Every new organization faces challenges, including from existing enterprises that may oppose a new agency as intruding on their terrain—catalogue the risks and contingency plans.

Introduce succession planning. This is critical to long-term success.

  • Know the process for who takes over after transition and standup. This ensures success for both transition leadership and the longer-term leadership.
  • Identify key transition leaders who can stay on after standup, so that the new agency has leaders who can build on initial momentum.
  • Focus on culture and change management. 
  • Build in flexibility as an organic organization to embrace necessary change as new issues will arise over time (and especially over the first two years). Keep a steady watch to resolve them.
  • Repeatedly discuss the value of change from the status quo, so that staff start believing it as a success factor for the new organization.
  • Create a brand and culture for the agency and promote and celebrate it.
  • Ask appropriate questions of new leaders in the interview process, to ensure a good cultural fit.
  • Celebrate the new culture change as part of on-boarding and other standup activities.
  • Standardize branding: What does the new agency stand for? What are its vision, mission, and core values? Make sure all offices, including field operations, are in sync.

The roundtable discussion addressed a number of challenges and opportunities for new government enterprises. The Center looks forward to working with NAPA in continuing this dialogue to assist with evolving needs and priorities for all government agencies going through significant change.

Dan Blair, President of the National Academy of Public Administration, collaborated on this piece.