It’s ‘Back to the Future’ to Improve Agency Management Practices

Given the shift in workplace dynamics driven by the pandemic, creating a new bottom-up initiative with a focus on quality management may be what’s needed now.

Columnist Fareed Zakaria, in a new book on lessons from the pandemic, observes that the endless debates over the size of government faded during the pandemic and “what seems to have mattered the most in this crisis was the quality of government.”

But what does “quality government” look like? How can public leaders and employees know—or show—that their organizations are high quality? After all, what is quality? Can it be measured? Why does it matter?

A recent task force, co-sponsored by the Senior Executives Association, the IBM Center for The Business of Government and several academics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explored these questions and offered some solutions.

Long-time federal employees will remember the Federal Quality Institute in the 1980s, which promoted the use of Total Quality Management techniques, and the Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s. Both promoted bottom-up efforts to engage federal employees on the front line and empower them to better serve the public. Some accounts say that these efforts engaged hundreds of thousands of federal employees. But these initiatives faded away in the early 2000s.

More recently, some federal agencies have embraced Lean Six Sigma techniques to improve their organizations’ efficiency on the front line. However, for most of the past 20 years, federal reform efforts have largely been top-down initiatives such as presidents’ management agendas, performance management and enterprise risk management frameworks, and program effectiveness assessment ratings. These have been conceived and driven by the Office of Management and Budget and while seen as successful, for the most part they did not engage many federal employees.

One lesson seems to be that more effective government reforms require both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Given the shift in workplace dynamics driven by the pandemic, it may be time to create a new bottom-up initiative, as was used in the 1980s and 1990s, with a renewed focus on quality management.

A report released jointly in May 2020 by the aforementioned task force proposed creating an assessment framework for federal agencies. Authors Dr. James Thompson and Alejandra Medina wrote that such an approach has several benefits. First is that it would place a renewed focus on the role of management and on the centrality of that function to good performance. One interviewee for the report commented, “often the reason that programs fail is because of bad management rather than because of bad policy. It is hard to get people to pay attention to management.” Conducting an assessment would help bring focus not only to the management function and to those who participate in that function, but to the question of how to achieve management excellence. And second, the mere process of conducting an assessment would create a learning dynamic. Agencies judged as well-managed would become examples from which others can learn.

Building a New Initiative

In preparing their report, Thompson and Medina assessed past US efforts, such as the Government Accountability Office’s General Management Reviews in the 1980s, the Federal Performance Project in the 1990s, OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool in the 2000s. They also reviewed efforts by other countries and the private sector, such as the World Management Survey, the Baldrige Quality Award, the United Kingdom’s Capability Review Programme, and Canada’s Management Accountability Framework. They also co-hosted a workshop, along with the IBM Center and the Senior Executives Association, of current and former federal executives to glean insights from their leadership experiences in government. Based on their assessment of what worked and what didn’t in these various efforts, they offered a set of building blocks for developing a new initiative at the federal level.

One of the building blocks was to create an ad hoc task force that would develop a roadmap for building out an initiative that could be undertaken by the next presidential administration in 2021. 

When the Thompson-Medina report was released in April 2020, the co-sponsors of that study recruited a small task force of volunteers, composed of current and former federal executives, both career and political. The members of the task force met over a period of months and grappled with many dimensions of developing a practical proposal. Ultimately, they agreed that it should be a learning tool, that it should be a self-assessment (or an invited third party), and it should be voluntary—not a top-down scorecard or ranking of agencies or work units.

The assessment framework, they felt, would be beneficial to new and existing leaders, as well as to aspiring leaders in their respective organizations. They felt that periodic assessments, much like annual physicals, would help leaders diagnose their organizational health and pinpoint areas that would benefit from strengthening. 

The task force prepared a short white paper, Creating and Supporting a Management Quality Improvement Learning Center for Federal Managers, that is a “call for action by the incoming Biden-Harris Administration—in partnership with federal executives, managers and employees and other good government organizations—to elevate the importance of improving the operational health of federal agencies.”

Task force members did not attempt to define “quality management” but agreed on three overarching characteristics of quality:

  • Organizational performance that delivers mission results
  • Organizational resilience to manage risk and respond to change
  • Organizational agility to innovate and deliver better government

The task force members felt the specifics would be best developed by a subsequent implementation team that would include front line managers who would design, use and evolve the diagnostic tool. In addition, there were other design elements left undefined for the same reason. For example:

  • How should the attributes of what would constitute quality performance, resilience, and agility be defined and how would they be measured?
  • Should there be a single, common assessment framework or multiple versions depending on the particular attributes of an organization? Would a common benchmark tool be useful, or would the variety of federal functions such as VA hospital, FAA air traffic operations, and Social Security Offices be too divergent for a common tool to be useful? 
  • What should be the unit of analysis for the assessments? Should an assessment be done at the work unit level, or at the departmental level? Should mission-oriented functions (e.g., patent processing) be assessed separate from or in conjunction with mission support functions (e.g., finance and personnel) they must depend upon? 

A Roadmap for Next Steps 

While the task force left open many critical elements of how the overall initiative might be implemented, it did lay out a roadmap for next steps:

  • Create a Management Quality Improvement Learning Center. This Center would serve as a catalyst, convener and champion for the development and adoption of assessment and diagnostics resources for federal managers. The center could be located inside or outside government, or both.
  • The Learning Center would be a repository of one or more assessment methods that would help managers “drive improvements in organizational performance, resilience, and agility by diagnosing and pinpointing areas to focus on strengthening,” according to the White Paper. It would create and maintain a playbook of successful practices as learning devices.
  • The Learning Center would pilot the assessment diagnostics protocols with volunteer agencies and iteratively update them based on experience.
  • The resources at the Learning Center would build on assessment data that already exists. For example, the data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey covers more than 28,000 work units. Customer experience data are collected for services in 26 agencies that have significant interactions with the public, such as the Transportation Security Administration. And an annual survey by the General Services Administration collects benchmarking data on managers’ satisfaction with mission support services.
  • The Learning Center would sponsor grassroots communities of practice to foster shared learning and exchange best practices on organizational management improvement strategies. It could leverage existing communities such as the volunteer-driven “Federal Leadership and Professional Development Seminar Series” developed by staff at the Department of Health and Human Services or the Federal Improvement Team, a grassroots community of federal employees who share a passion for continuous performance improvement in the federal sector. 

Finally, the task force did not recommend a specific champion or “owner” for this initiative. However, it did identify several potential champions inside and outside government, including the Senior Executives Association, the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute, a university, or some combination of these or other organizations listed in the White Paper.

Given the immense challenges facing our government today, is this the right time to launch a quality management initiative, with an emphasis on bottom-up engagement? That may have been answered indirectly by President Biden in a recent video message to the federal workforce: “You’re the ones running the show. I have the utmost trust in your capabilities . . . to make good decisions, stay focused on what’s most important: humility, trust, collegiality, diversity and competence.” Restoring trust in government by the public, and within government by employees, starts with quality management.