Kelman: The need for a new way

Inspectors general should abandon destructive practices and encourage managed risk-taking

"Achieving Innovation in Central Government Organisations" (.pdf)

I recently read a government report titled “Achieving Innovation in Central Government Organisations.” It begins by stating that innovation “is a key motor of productivity change in government, in many ways analogous to the importance of innovation and productivity in the private sector.” The report presents a survey of agency innovations and conclusions about success factors and obstacles.

The careful reader might observe from the title’s wording and spelling that the report comes from our friends in the United Kingdom. What might come as a surprise, however, is the name of the organization that produced the report. It is the National Audit Office, Britain’s counterpart to our Government Accountability Office and inspectors general.

The report, which came out last year, follows a 2004 National Audit Office report titled “Managing Risks to Improve Public Services.” That document is about how taking risks is necessary for improving government performance.

“Well-managed risk-taking creates opportunities and delivers benefits to citizens and taxpayers,” the report states. It adds that better risk management is necessary to foster the innovations that improve public services. The document illustrates its points with three case studies of successful risk management in government and three stories of failure. It presents techniques for successfully managing risk.

That report and other documents I discovered during my research on U.K. government efforts to reduce waiting times in hospital emergency rooms astounded me. A report from the Healthcare Commission, for example, highlighted lengthy delays that patients experienced waiting for treatment in hospital emergency rooms. However, it went on to state that health authorities had made a concerted effort to shorten patients’ waiting time. The tone of those British reports is remarkably unlike the typical report from our IGs. When was the last time you saw an IG report discuss how government could be more innovative? When did you ever see an IG report in which risk was anything other than a four-letter word? GAO doesn’t have a risk list of poorly managed programs. It publishes a high-risk list, as if risk were an unacceptable condition.

Certainly our agencies need oversight. But the by-the-book, control-freak world that IGs inhabit stands in stark contrast to a use-your-brain, look-for-ways-to-improve mind-set necessary for better government. The IGs’ irresistible urge to grab headlines with tales of scandal and incompetence ultimately demoralizes civil servants and causes them to hunker down to avoid the IGs’ fire.

The United Kingdom shows us that government doesn’t have to be that way. The destructive elements of IG practice are self-chosen. Those who care about good government need to raise their voices to urge different practices.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at
steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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