Whatever happens with specific proposals, federal leaders should focus on these high return components.
The recently released federal reform and reorganization plan—Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century—generated headlines around its proposal to merge the Labor and Education departments. But there are a number of other, less controversial elements that deserve attention. As federal leaders navigate the challenging terrain ahead, the following priority areas represent no-regrets investments:
1. Customer-Centric Operations
The plan describes the Customer Experience Improvement Capability as an effort to identify customer groups and map their journeys across delivery channels, with the goal of reducing silos and making it easier to access government services. With today’s customer service scores significantly lagging in the federal space, this critical initiative can help agencies focus on something the private sector depends on for survival—creating positive experiences for people seeking information or services.
My colleague Chris Bagley finds that the best way for an agency to achieve its mission is by supporting the mission of the citizen. Recently, he discussed the IRS2Go mobile app his team developed for the IRS. It has a powerful goal: provide users with service on demand. Instead of waiting two hours on the phone to get tax records or understand a refund, citizens can now quickly access the information they need, on their own time. With this type of outsourced, on-demand customer service, Chris says “agencies can spend less, do more, and then reinvest those savings in continually listening and evolving as the needs of the population change.” It’s a great example of a customer-oriented approach to achieving the agency’s legacy mission.
2. Evidence-Based Investments
With leaders feeling increased pressure to do more with less, it’s undoubtedly important to assess which investments are working and which may be under-performing. We made ROI a core focus when I was at the Commerce Department, and while I know it’s not easy, it’s critical to do. The current reform plan’s focus on strengthening federal evaluation underscores the need for federal agencies to collect performance and impact data—and then apply analytics to make smart programmatic decisions based on effectiveness. This analysis step is frankly the hardest climb; we’ve worked with federal clients who are collecting mountains of data, but don’t know how to use it to support real-world program and policy decisions.
This analysis challenge became especially pressing after the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act passed in 2014. With data.gov we have more than 200,000 data sets, which can be extremely daunting. My colleague Bryce Pippert shared this advice: “Don’t start with the data. Start with the challenge that you want to address or the innovation you’re trying to achieve.” With a clear understanding of the problem, you can seek out information from data.gov and other public resources, or capture new data sets as needed. Bryce, an open data expert whose team is working with the Treasury Department on a model to aggregate and validate spending data across government (usaspending.gov), talks about the possibilities that open data can have for government. He sees a near future where spending data is tightly connected to performance data and strategic plans, so there’s a comprehensive picture of the return on investment, from a financial and mission standpoint. With that kind of visibility, policymakers can determine resource allocation in an entirely new way.
3. Collaborative Innovation
To meet the core purpose of the reform plan—aligning government to meet Americans’ needs in the digital age—modern technology must be central to the delivery of services. But new IT development and enhancements cannot be viewed as stand-alone solutions; agency leaders must put IT at the nexus of mission and service. As I discussed in a recent column, the most successful technology initiatives I experienced as a federal executive and that we see with our Booz Allen client agencies are those where both technology leaders and their programmatic counterparts break out of their respective silos and form sustainable, collaborative, and trusting relationships. Working in lockstep, CIOs and COOs can overcome two common barriers to sustained transformation: First, collaboration uncovers cases where employees and internal stakeholders don’t have the basic tools and support they need to do their jobs; second, it positions IT as a mechanism that truly addresses program and customer needs. Mission and service must drive technology development—not the other way around.
In addition to enhancing a service-focused IT infrastructure, the President’s plan establishes other ways for agencies to innovate and work with the private sector. By way of a non-governmental public-private partnership (referred to as the GEAR Center), agencies would be able to engage researchers, academics, non-profits, and private industry to solve challenges and map out where government needs to be in 10 or 20 years. This is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding ways that the model has already changed. You have private industries opening their labs to government, and Silicon Valley acting as the hub to some of nation’s most important research and development for defense issues. But there is a critical component to success here. As my colleague Nyla Beth Gawel pointed out: “This should be about more than just sharing ideas, but making sure the innovations can actually be procured and implemented by the government. It’s valuable to study examples such as the U.S. Digital Service to understand how they’re effectively modernizing procurement to parallel agile development methodologies, and using methods like hackathons and crowdsourcing to move quickly and engage broad industries.”
Whatever happens with specific reform proposals, federal leaders should use this time to prepare their workforce. This requires staying close to stakeholders who are navigating demanding conditions and are likely worried about what the future holds. For example, part of a leader’s standard practice should be regular touchpoints with union leaders, outside of formal (and potentially strained) interactions. When I was at Commerce, I had monthly calls with the union leadership, and together we’d partner on challenges that came up. By securing these relationships, agencies will be in a far better position to adapt to what’s to come.
Matt Erskine is an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, supporting government clients with reform and transformation strategies. He previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development and Chief Operating Officer of the Economic Development Administration. For leadership guidance during transformation, read Booz Allen’s latest report with Harvard University Professor Steven Kelman.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year the DATA act was enacted.