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Thoughts on the President’s Management Agenda: Kudos… With a Caution

The PMA doesn’t provide adequate guidance on one of the most important levers available to the government to improve performance: acquisition.

Amidst whatever the current political climate might have been, for the last half dozen administrations, the president’s management agenda has consistently set forth a vision for government that not only serves as an important foundation for agency operations and priorities, but has consistently also built on the work of previous administrations.

Indeed, while every PMA has reflected some of the priorities of the relevant administration, for the most part the agendas have been apolitical and reflected a logical, if slow, progression in the modernization of government.

The Trump administration’s PMA is no different. To the administration’s credit, it avoided a “not invented here” mindset and grounded its plan in rationale, goals, themes, and, in some areas, specific priorities that reflect challenges and problems similar in nature to those identified for many years by previous administrations. Striving for better mission outcomes? Check. Improving customer service? Check. Improving fiscal stewardship? Check.

Similarly, the PMA’s “root cause” analysis also strikes some very familiar chords: regulatory burdens, siloed governance and management, sometimes torturous decision-making processes, concerns about workforce capabilities and competencies, leadership and culture. Further, the core management initiatives are, in the main, consistent and logical, as are the cross-agency priorities. Their implementation is now underway.

As with all such efforts, there will be heated debate over some elements, particularly in areas like regulatory reform and agency reorganization. Indeed, anyone who has lived through any of the several rounds of military Base Realignment and Closures can appreciate the challenges associated with major organizational changes. And while some might harp on the fact that there is little “new” in its themes, the authors of the PMA have wisely chosen to recognize that despite the clear (if uneven) progress achieved by earlier administrations, the core challenges facing government have neither been solved nor disappeared.

That’s all to the good. And good government practitioners and activists of diverse political perspectives are all working with OMB and the agencies to help those initiatives succeed.

Given the solid foundation on which the PMA is built, there are, nonetheless, two important opportunities that warrant additional attention.

First, on a macro level, while some initiatives have clear White House backing, there is not enough visible evidence of serious leadership engagement—cabinet secretaries, top White House officials, even the president—which we have seen in previous successful government

reform initiatives. Indeed, the most successful government transformation efforts have been marked by visible, unceasing attention and support of the very top leaders.

For example, the Clinton Administration’s National Performance Review was assisted by the direct involvement of the vice president. To be recognized by him with a “Hammer Award” was an aspiration across almost every federal agency. During the Bush II years, the administration was very open about the fact that key initiatives, for example, e-Government, were reviewed at cabinet meetings, thus putting cabinet members on notice that their progress (or lack thereof) had attention from the highest levels.

In short, top leadership engagement is a core principle of change or transformation. And leadership and culture are among the administration’s and PMA’s primary targets for improvement. As such, leadership itself has to be far more visible and engaged across all of the initiatives than has been evident to date. As the administration seeks to address the leadership challenges, risk aversion, and other characteristics that beset the federal government, it will have to openly and consistently “walk the walk” and incentivize and reward change.

At the micro level, the PMA frankly doesn’t provide adequate guidance or leadership on one of the most important levers available to the government to improve agency performance and customer service: acquisition. Over 50 percent of the discretionary federal budget goes out through contracts; even more through grants. It is thus no exaggeration to suggest that “as goes acquisition so goes the government.”

Within the context of the PMA, two of the eleven priority goals are primarily focused on acquisition: Category Management and Improving Major Acquisition Programs. Both are important. But both are also subsets of a larger framework which the PMA does not address. Category Management and improving major acquisition programs are both good goals, but they do not exist in a vacuum.

That is not to say that we need a raft of new acquisition policy “reform” proposals. In fact, that may be just what we don’t need. But what we do need is a more holistic vision that cuts across the full scope of acquisition initiatives and processes and across the PMA’s core themes and root causes themselves.

In fact, one idea is to specifically apply the PMA’s core themes to acquisition and to establish a set of metrics for measuring progress on each, particularly in the context of the PMA’s primary objectives of improving mission outcomes, customer service, and fiscal stewardship. This would elevate the acquisition conversation to the fundamental and cross-functional level it merits, and also provide a clarity of vision for the future.

Think about it this way:

Regulatory burdens. There have been countless efforts to reduce the regulatory burdens that so frequently slow the acquisition process and create barriers to market entry. And the efforts and reviews continue. But when it comes to regulatory reform, the PMA is silent on this critical topic. That could be easily changed.

Possible metric: Measure the increase in the number of federal procurements that include BOTH traditional and non-traditional federal contractors.

Management through silos and improved customer service. Indeed, while government-industry communications remain a common topic of concern, massive communication gaps within the government, largely between end-use customers and contracting officers, also continue to dog the process. Most contracting officers believe the program folks have taken over the world. Meanwhile, most program managers say just the opposite.

Likewise, the explosion in the use of “other transactions authority” (which enables procurements outside of the bounds of the Federal Acquisition Regulation) is largely being driven by customers who are frustrated by the pace and results of the current process. Fairly or not (and there is truth on both sides), they place much of the blame on the acquisition community. If improved customer service is a core goal, this perception cannot be ignored. Both challenges could be at least partially addressed through the use of customer satisfaction metrics—using an intentionally broad definition of “customer.”

Possible metric: conduct post-award 360-degree process evaluations in which all stakeholders, across both government and industry, evaluate the quality of the process---collaboration, clarity, responsiveness, etc. And use them as a tool for developing data to illuminate that which should be replicated and that which needs to be changed, driving improved organizational performance and, most importantly, outcomes.

Overly lengthy decision-making processes. Where else but in government does it take six months to award a small contract or two or more years to award one of size? Time is money and, in the current world of technology, two years can be multiple generations. We don’t really measure it. Let’s start -- openly and across the board.

Possible metric: Measure and report actual Procurement Acquisition Lead Time (PALT) Some agencies are taking some steps in this direction; yet there is no reason the initiatives couldn’t be broader and accelerated.

Workforce capabilities. Many acquisition leaders believe the workforce has dramatically improved, but that view is not necessarily shared by their “customers.” And there is little other than self-evaluations and certification levels to back up claims in either direction. Yet, the acquisition workforce of the future is among the government’s most critical human capital needs. Much work has been done, mostly by government professionals, to define the acquisition organization of the future. Imperfect as it may be, the “AoF” model offers a valuable starting point for building an acquisition capability maturity model of the type that we have and rely on for software. And in the process, it also provides a compelling picture of the skills and capabilities the workforce of the future will need.

Possible metric: Formalize the AMM (acquisition maturity model) and measure organizational attainment of targeted AMM levels.

Leadership and culture. Last on the list but perhaps most important of all, the government has a great deal of work to do to build the kind of culture needed in today’s environment. Nowhere is this truer than in acquisition.

Simply put, the acquisition environment is fraught with risk aversion. Numerous surveys of the federal workforce at large and acquisition professionals specifically, have documented the fear that if something goes awry, leaders will not be there to defend and protect the front line workforce. The good news, however, is that by implementing all or most of the above initiatives—especially the Acquisition Maturity Model and the 360 Evaluations--leaders will have more data to rely on and that, in turn, should serve to buttress their ability to support their people.

Beyond those initiatives, there are a range of tools, commonly utilized in dynamic private sector organizations, to encourage innovative thinking and reasonable risk taking. And while government functions within the context of a body politic that is often unforgiving, strong leaders can and will provide cover and reward to those of their teams who step out.

Possible metric/initiative: Agency sponsored “Innovation Awards;” internal “Innovation Challenges;” White House-led “Champions of Change” awards (similar to the Hammer Awards of old).

The PMA seeks to do just that (IT modernization, for example). But in other critical areas, especially in acquisition, the PMA’s vision is less clear and the map is generally non-existent. It’s certainly not too late to fill that gap.

A failure to do so could represent a significant opportunity lost.

Mr. Soloway is president and CEO of Celero Strategies, LLC. He served as deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform and director of the Defense Reform Initiative during the Clinton administration. This piece originally appeared in Perspectives on the President’s Management Agenda, published by the National Academy of Public Administration. It is republished here with permission.