Government Reform

Where are the bold ideas for remaking government?

Alan Balutis

Four years ago, I guided an 18-month initiative to develop a management agenda for the then-incoming 44th president of the United States. That initiative involved:

  •  A year-long seminar series to tap into the collective wisdom of experts with proven knowledge of how to handle the challenges of management in government.
  •  A partnership with The Public Manager and other journals to publicize and distribute findings and insights from the seminar discussions and individual experts.
  •  Close collaboration with other organizations, associations, universities, nonprofit groups, think tanks, and so on to jointly support innovative ideas to improve government and the delivery of services to the public.
  •  A website called (now defunct)  to which individuals from within and outside government were invited to submit new ideas to improve the management of government.

This year, I am involved with several good-government and academic associations that are similarly gathering ideas and initiatives to present to the new administration and Congress after the election in November. At a recent meeting here in Washington, D.C., several colleagues laid out their proposed report, which focused on the human resources arena. It was a nicely framed, well-researched and eminently reasonable report. But the audience’s reaction left me both surprised and chastened.

We hear again and again that government needs to change, that it needs to be better managed, that it needs to be flatter, more connected, less hierarchical. So why is our reform cupboard so bare?

We all know that our nation is facing challenging times. The lame duck Congress that will reconvene in November must keep the country from going over a fiscal cliff. Lawmakers must deal with the threat of sequestration, the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, a budget for fiscal 2013 to extend the existing six-month continuing resolution, and an extension of the federal debt limitations. At our current pace, in 2080, the total cost of government will be more than three times the revenue.

And there are other challenges: the continuing war on terrorism, increasing economic competition from emerging world powers such as China and India, rising energy costs, environmental concerns, and unknown new problems and threats. We hear again and again that government needs to change, that it needs to be better managed, that it needs to be flatter, more connected, less hierarchical. In other words, we need a 21st-century government.

That’s what our audience of fellows at the National Academy of Public Administration told us at our recent meeting. We are at a government management watershed, they said, and are hungry for initiatives that will remake the federal bureaucracy. So where are the big, bold ideas to do so, they asked? The words of Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, rang in my mind. In the opening article from our 2008 forum on the need for a new management agenda, Kettl argued: “Never has American history seen a time when management has been more important but the stock of ideas has been so low.”

If we are at a watershed in modern government, where is the torrent of initiatives that will remake our bureaucracy? Where are the thinkers who will banish our 1950s-era federal processes and structures and remake Washington, D.C.? And why do our career and political leaders — intelligent, thoughtful men and women who have been educated at America’s finest institutions — seem so painfully and embarrassingly short of new ideas?

I need to think more about this myself. Why is our government management reform cupboard so bare? What do you think? E-mail me at

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 23, 2012 James Gill

I would agree with the lack of good ideas, but it is rather the inertia of the bureaucracy that requires change incrementally. My ideas for reforming the DOD Acquisition process were rebuffed by leadership even though many recognized the need for "Big" solutions. There was a perception that these ideas represented "radical" change for which big bureaucracies were incapable of adapting. The military were fearful that the changes would deprive them of influence upon the decision-making process, and the civilians were fearful of changes to their areas of responsibility. The political apointees were looking for ideas, but the career senior managers were concerned that the changes would leave them with a reduced role in the decision-making process. it requires a fiscal crisis of severe distress to accept that change is inevitable, and most bureaucrats would rather "kick the can downstream" rather than accept the inevitable criticism that comes with severe change.

Mon, Oct 22, 2012 OccupyIT

I agree with RayW. It IS being rebuilt but in an angrier, more self-important, and self-centered way. I'm finding fewer and fewer direct hires focused on a real mission and more and more focused on office politics and career hounding. Sad because there are still a few shining stars out there between all the dark energy...

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 Mark Montgomery United States

Great ideas and mature systems are widely available and presented all the time--I've been doing it for nearly two decades pro-bono--and investing my retirement and taking risk to do so. The culture has become so absorbed in protectionism rather than the best interest of the U.S. that it has built co-dependent alliances that essentially kills viable reforms that are critical for sustainability, and punishes those who make the attempt-whether internally or externally. The culture seems to seek martyrs for words, not reformers for change, and makes decisions based solely on careerism. Solutions exist, decision makers in government are aware of them- they just make the decision not to adopt on a daily basis. Individuals who truly have the long-term interests of the U.S. in their hearts and minds don't seem welcome by the culture--not unusual in cultures that suffer a similar trajectory.

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 Robert Damashek United States

Alan, I think part of the problem is that many get so discouraged when they hear stories like yours or experience them firsthand. It takes a lot of determination and caring to keep on trying to promote effective government in the face of so much opposition to change. Also, I think that though many know of the waste and inefficiencies we currently tolerate in government, they believe the problem to be so complex and daunting as to be insurmountable, so they pass the buck to the next person's watch. I actually think one of the boldest ideas is in some ways really very simple: 1. everyone plans, 2. we all plan to meet needs, 3. Government just needs a way to plan more collaboratively and more openly, and with much greater shared understanding, so that opportunities for reuse, sharing and streamlining can be identified and leveraged early and often. To do this, I think we do need a bold initiative, like the human genome project, to uncover the architecture of government in a standardized way that allows plans and initiatives in each functional area to be objectively compared. But this need not be done all at once, and much benefit can be gained incrementally. Perhaps all we need is a little more encouragement from our leaders to keep caring.

Fri, Oct 19, 2012

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” ~ Henry David Thoreau. Likewise, if an idea, concept, or explanation will not fit on the back of a business card then it’s rubbish! Seriously, a little transcendentalism would go a long way, particularly in regard to the inherent goodness of both man and nature.

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