How political appointees undermine large IT programs -- and how to turn the tide

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

I recently participated in a discussion about why so many large government IT projects fail. One point that came up was instability in executive sponsorship. A political appointee makes a project a priority and gets it started, but by the time project implementation is in full swing, that appointee is gone and the new one has no interest in projects the predecessor promoted. The result is a loss of executive leadership and momentum.

The U.S. system of government is unique among advanced western democracies in the prevalence of political appointees in agency leadership positions. In countries such as the United Kingdom — to take just one example — the equivalent of an assistant secretary would typically be a civil servant.

Political appointees come with pluses and minuses, public policy experts say. On the plus side, appointees more faithfully represent the political views of the party in power than do career employees. And, because they come from outside government, they are a source of innovation and new ideas. On the minus side, they are so eager to innovate — and make their mark — that they often reject whatever has been started earlier. And, of course, they typically don’t stay long enough to see any projects through of their own, other than those that are quick hits. That problem is also found in the military when officers are given brief assignments at a command.

When I was appointed administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in 1993, I spoke with my predecessor, Al Burman, on his last day on the job. I told him that I thought procurement was a nonpartisan issue and that, whenever possible, I wanted to continue initiatives he had begun. I asked him to identify the three most important projects he had started that were not yet finished, and I promised to try to continue working on them. I hope he would say I kept my promise.

However, the problem now is that too many of the incentives for political appointees are weighted toward abandoning old initiatives — typically before they have reached fruition — and starting new ones.

I have a suggestion that I want to throw into the court of the Partnership for Public Service, one of my favorite good-government organizations and one that often experiments with unusual approaches to doing things.

I propose the launch of what I will call the Continuity Award — at least until a public relations expert comes up with a better name. The award would be given each year to the political appointee who most successfully continues and brings to fruition a major initiative begun by his or her predecessor. A good candidate would be a new executive who does not drop the ball on a major IT program.

The award could call attention to the problem of continuity in public-sector management and could help counter, at least a little, the overwhelming incentives the current system has against continuing initiatives of previous appointees.

It would send another good message as well, one that is particularly relevant in these times of partisanship on steroids: Not every issue in government, particularly those related to managing the government, need involve partisan rancor between Democrats and Republicans.

Partnership for Public Service, what do you think?


About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve


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