5 keys to rekindling government innovation

It wasn't just a noble vision that got America to the moon, it was also the federal government’s legal, regulatory, management and legislative framework. Paul Brubaker offers some ideas to recapture the innovative climate of the 1960s.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University, where he described in detail why the moon shot challenge he had issued to Congress a year earlier was so critical and consistent with national character. I can’t help asking myself: If the federal government of the 1960s had been burdened with today’s procurement laws and regulations, organizational structures, personnel rules, and legislative structure and processes, would it have succeeded in achieving Kennedy’s vision? I suspect not.

Many of us assume that some approximation of today’s legislative and regulatory framework, at least in terms of structure and complexity, has always existed. Not so. For example, most of the cumbersome and bureaucratic structures governing federal procurement evolved in the 1970s, largely as a result of Congress and the executive branch trying to bring some governmentwide uniformity to procurement rules that had until then been an agency-by-agency affair. These rules and regulations quickly spiraled out of control as layer upon layer of law, regulation and agency guidance was issued, ostensibly to provide consistent implementation. When these laws and regulations did not prevent highly publicized instances of waste, fraud or abuse, still more layers of well-meaning but arguably ineffective law, regulation and personnel were added.

Today, it is clear that the ability of our federal government to effectively plan and execute any major technological advance or bold initiative, let alone achieve something of the magnitude of America’s manned space program, has all but disappeared. The layers of cumbersome and complicated guidance issued in the past four decades by Congress and the executive branch have effectively obstructed mission-related advancement, while creating tens of thousands of compliance requirements and related jobs.

Those regulations and structures might have advanced their goals in the short term but only by constipating the system so badly that our government is no longer trusted by a majority of its citizens to execute big, bold, audacious goals. America can be thankful that we achieved our manned space mission objectives before the creation of the Federal Acquisition Regulation in 1974, before the General Services Administration centralized procurement policy in 1978 and before the debut of the Office of Personnel Management in 1979.

The good news is that frustration with successive system failures, program challenges and lack of progress in transforming agency operations is both strong and bipartisan. It is also shared among those in government and those who serve government from the contractor and support communities. Effectively, everyone is on the same page and agrees that the status quo is unsustainable, which strikes me as a perfect precondition for change.

After spending the past two and a half decades observing the frustrating inability of government to execute effectively, I would like to make five recommendations.

  1. Create a management structure that works. That means establishing a nonpartisan, term-appointment chief management officer at each agency and making that job, the secretary and the deputy the only Senate-confirmed positions in an agency. The CMO would be accountable to the secretary and provide the focus, accountability, authority and continuity necessary to align resources around agency goals and focus on execution and outcomes.
  2. Simplify the existing procurement system by eliminating the FAR; governmentwide acquisition contracts; indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts; and GSA schedules. Agency contracting officers, under the supervision of the CMO, would be given the ability to buy what they need, when they need it, from sources they deem fit to provide it as long as all activities are transparent. Officials would, of course, need to be mindful of optics, public opinion and congressional oversight, but they would first and foremost be held accountable for outcomes and results that support agency goals.
  3. Dramatically shorten the hiring cycle and allow agencies to hire the talent they need, when they need it, as long as the hires are within agency hiring guidelines and budgets. We should also invest 3 percent of agency personnel budgets in agency-determined, job-specific education and training, and institute annual minimum training requirements.
  4. Deconstruct and reorganize agencies into clear mission-focused independent organizations designed to accomplish big, bold, 21st century American goals. It is clear that today’s mega agencies are unmanageably huge diseconomies with cumbersome layers of review and bureaucracy. We need operations like the Department of Passenger Travel, the Domestic Manufacturing Bureau or the National Weather Agency.
  5. Reorganize and realign the legislative and executive branches around 21st century goals. We should also harmonize the authorization and appropriations structure of the legislative and executive branches so both can do their utmost to ensure that programs, resources and oversight are aligned.

Fifty years ago, there were reasons why the United States was able to accomplish Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon and back. It was more than a noble vision. The federal government’s legal, regulatory, management and legislative framework of the 1960s allowed it.

Perhaps now is the time to unwind the cumbersome body of law, regulation and practice that has spawned a culture that is killing government’s ability to innovate and execute. We need to simplify and restructure the framework that governs how our government agencies are defined, organized and managed; how they buy; how they hire; and how they interact with Congress.

During his speech at Rice University, Kennedy reminded us that we as Americans relish big challenges and do not shrink from things that are hard. If we hope to execute bold visions for government in this century, we need to do some hard things first — such as creating a government structure that supports big achievement.

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