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7 Requirements for Successfully Managing Government Reform

Public sector transformation can be successful if pursued the right way.

The Trump administration is expected to unveil a plan in the coming weeks to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies. The goal, as expressed in a memorandum to agencies from Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in April 2017, is to create a leaner, more accountable, and more efficient government.

As a result of this and other recent reform initiatives, many federal managers are fundamentally rethinking how to meet their missions. There is much room for reform, and many of today’s legacy approaches for delivering government services and executing missions should be reconsidered in the face of new operating models and innovative technologies that are transforming service delivery in the commercial sector.

While I am hopeful we will see some promising reform plans emerge in the coming weeks, I’m not as optimistic about their chances of sustained  success. Despite people’s best efforts and intentions, many reform efforts fall short of their goals. In my experience as a long-time government leader and private sector consultant, I have found that public sector transformation initiatives can be successful if pursued the right way. There is a methodology to transformation that significantly increases the likelihood that reforms will be successful and sustained over time.

That said, government transformation is not an exact science. Not all reform initiatives are alike, nor do all organizations respond similarly to change. But, to be successful, certain transformation imperatives must be properly addressed. These include:

A clear and compelling vision. Leadership must articulate why change is necessary, define a future state that delivers improved customer experience and mission performance, and win buy-in from affected stakeholders.

Organizational shifts. To define what organizational changes are required to meet the stated vision, planners must think broadly and look at their organization from multiple perspectives. They should look “outside in” to better understand their constituents’ needs and how to better serve them; and look “inside out” to better understand the internal changes needed to navigate shifting external trends and forces.

Integrated initiatives to achieve those shifts. Implementation initiatives should focus on moving the needle toward the desired organizational shifts and articulated vision. These initiatives should be approached with an integrated mindset, considering people, culture, processes, and technology; and they should be plotted against defined measures of success.

Prepared leadership. Executives and managers throughout the organization must be engaged from the outset so they are prepared for, aligned with, and comfortable with the coming changes and their roles in making those changes successful.

Engaged stakeholders. Both internal and external stakeholders have important roles to play. Their buy-in (or conversely, their opposition) can often be critical to an initiative’s success or failure. But they should also be viewed as important resources whose perspectives can help validate and refine the strategy to be more effective.

Informed, prepared, equipped staff. Success or failure ultimately rides on the shoulders of the people executing and sustaining the change. Leaders must commit to informing, preparing, supporting and empowering staff through a strong change management plan, uninhibited two-way communications, and incentives for success. Effective tools and training for affected staff are also critical.   

Targeted oversight. Leadership must empower a dedicated office to drive the reform effort by managing risk, process, and governance policies. This office should be responsible synchronizing and integrating schedules, tracking milestones, and enhancing transparency in the process.

Managing these seven imperatives well is critical for any large government reform effort, but it is also important to understand that not every effort demands the same tactics or approaches. Each situation is unique, and leaders must carefully calibrate their approaches accordingly.

A final caution: Leaders can sometimes place too much emphasis on point solutions, such as redrawing an organization chart or deploying a new IT system when attempting to fix problems or address pressing requirements. Employing focused solutions that solve a narrowly defined problem in this way is like pulling on a snag without considering the rest of the fabric. Meaningful change often requires making adjustments across the board—in operations, the workforce, and constituent engagement.

Dave Mader is chief strategy officer for the civilian sector in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s federal government practice and is the former Office of Management and Budget Controller and  Assistant Deputy Commissioner at the IRS.