Removing barriers to government performance improvement

Alan Balutis

Over the years, I’ve penned a number of columns and blog postings for this and other journals in our community. Sad to say, few have drawn much commentary or reader response. Oh, there was a column last spring citing research done by a local professor that predicted President Barack Obama’s re-election in November. That drew some scathing commentary attacking me for my bias, my wrong-headedness and the failures of my logic. I’ll let Jan. 21, 2013, stand as my rebuttal.

In a column published in FCW last fall, I asked: Where are the big, bold ideas to remake the federal bureaucracy? I wrote: “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...seem so painfully and embarrassingly short of new ideas?”

That struck a nerve — 40-plus of them, in fact. Most of the comments came from career public servants, most often from an anonymous or private e-mail address. They noted four key barriers to improving federal management and the government’s performance:

* A lack of focus on management by political appointees.

* Failed efforts at upgrading the government’s IT infrastructure. As one wag put it, “In the federal government, we define the trailing edge of technology.”

The challenge for government will be to use collaborative tools to make it more connected and less hierarchical.

* An overly cumbersome procurement process.

* An equally burdensome federal hiring — and firing — process.

They also pointed to some promising factors that could force us toward a 21st-century government: * An emerging workforce of digital natives who bring with them expectations of collaboration, instantaneous communications and innovative technologies.

* A desire to reverse the trend toward contracting out more tasks to the private sector while enhancing the government’s ability to oversee and manage contract dollars and activities.

* Powerful new strategic information and communication technologies that promise to change government.

* Global trends and innovative approaches that are transforming the government’s delivery of services to the public.

* Revolutionary new business models for the government and elevated customer expectations.

* Heightened expectations that government must deliver on its policy promises.

In his recent State of the Union address, Obama called for a smarter government. Here are some initial steps suggested by our readers:

1. Create a different culture by taking advantage of the need for new hires. The next four years will bring an increase in federal employee retirements, which offers a unique opportunity for the government to recruit individuals with the desired set of new skills and behaviors.

2. Give all employees new collaborative technologies. Millennials will be the majority of the government’s new hires. These young people have grown up using computers and collaborative technologies, so the challenge for government will be to use those tools — social networking, wikis, blogs and virtual worlds — to make it more connected and less hierarchical.

3. Develop new relationships between the government and its contract workforce. A major challenge for the new administration will be to forge a true partnership between employees and contractors.

4. Enhance collaboration between the federal government and state and local governments, as well as the nonprofit and private sectors. The federal government alone cannot effectively respond to all the challenges now facing the nation, which are as varied as sustaining the environment and combating terrorism. The administration must improve its collaboration with other organizations to meet those challenges.

5. Become more citizen-centric. Americans want the government to work effectively, seamlessly and openly. A transformed government would focus as much on responsible execution and operational excellence as on the initiation of new policies and programs.

So what do you say? Send me your ideas (, and I will do my best to synthesize and integrate them.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 26, 2013 Robert Bacal Canada

Perhaps we need to consider the analysis at an earlier point. It's not clear to me what you mean by government performance. Is it lowering costs? Is it being more efficient in achieving government goals? I write a lot about government, and have worked internally, and as an external consultant, and the one thing I notice is that people, particularly outside of government really don't understand the role of government in our society, or how those "barriers" you talk about are a result of the "checks and balances" system which is fundamental to government. While I agree with your point #1 to an extent (because things are so culturally related), I think that to improve "performance", there may be costs in other ways. If, for example, you remove the checks and balances, you WILL cut procurement costs, speed action, etc. Is that a worthwhile tradeoff?

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