Government's unending saga of management reform

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Just a few short months ago, good government types were bemoaning the lack of "management agenda" for the new Trump administration.

Then came a flurry of activity that silenced those concerned: a White House meeting with leading private sector executives; a draft executive order on cybersecurity; expressions of support for the Modernizing Government Technology Act; a federal hiring freeze; the creation of a White House Office of American Innovation; the establishment of an American Technology Council; a call for plans, due Sept. 30, to reorganize executive departments and agencies; and the release of the President's FY 2018 budget (aka " The Skinny Budget"), with a section on management in the very front of the document.

That management chapter promises the development of "... the President's Management Agenda focused on achieving significant improvements in the effectiveness of its core management functions." Goals will be set that are critical "... to improving the Federal Government's effectiveness, efficiency, cybersecurity, and accountability."

That sounds like a full slate, but let's think about the management reform agendas (noting that they weren't always called such) over the last few decades: government reorganization; Program Planning and Budgeting; Reform '88; 1,000 points of light; Reinventing Government; and a Management Agenda for both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama (same name – somewhat different focus). One could easily go all the way back to a golden era in public administration and government reform – the Hoover Commissions of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations 70 years ago.

It's overkill to go all the way back to when President Donald Trump was a youngster. Let's go back only half-way, to when senior aide Jared Kushner was a baby. In September 1982, the Reagan administration unveiled a "major management reform" package that it said would eventually allow the president to run the government as efficiently as a private corporation. Called Reform '88, because it would take six years to implement, the initiative promised to concentrate on what have since become the "usual suspects":

  • Standard accounting and other administrative management systems;
  • Modernizing and integrating government computer systems;
  • Cutting federal paper work and internal agency regulations;
  • Shared services;
  • A government that acts in an efficient and businesslike manner;
  • Streamlining rule-bound and slow personnel and procurement operations;
  • Over payments, under payments, and improper payments;
  • Delinquent debts;
  • Excess government field offices and properties; and...

I could go on, but you get the idea. In spite of years of management reform efforts, little has changed. What company would still have basically the same management reform objectives for over 30 years and still be in business? 

So I hereby propose a deliberately terse Trump Management Agenda -- and it needs to come first. Before new White House Task Forces and Presidential Commissions. Before new executive orders and OMB directives. Before additional Hill hearings or legislation or Government Accountability Office reports. Before new staff offices are created and filled with change agents, thought leaders, visionaries, innovators, rock stars, heavy hitters, big thinkers or Silicon Valley transients.

Our need today is not for more agile, innovative, enabling leaders. It is not for transformative leadership. The future is about managing risks, expenses and sound customer service. It's about delivering and executing. It is about solid management, administration and execution.

For at least the last 35 years, we've been over-led and under-managed. What we need today is more and better management. President Trump, "JUST DO IT!"

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Tue, May 16, 2017 Bruce Waltuck

On this, I must disagree:

"What company would still have basically the same management reform objectives for over 30 years and still be in business?"

I believe the response is "any org whose intention is to always try to be better tomorrow than they are today."

So, what does that mean?

Seeking to continuously improve business processes. Seeking better efficiency, quality, value, and service. Not just "better, faster, cheaper," but as my formercolleague Brenda Mannix said in 2009, to also seek "more smiling faces." Employees, customers, stakeholders. To listen, learn, try, and adapt even in the mostcomplex and difficult challenges. To be empowered and accountable to do your best every day.

Think government can't do that? Think again. That Reagan Executive Order in 1987/88 was followed by the implementation of the Federal Quality movement. For the next 4-5 years, Federal agencies including the Army, Air Force, IRS, NASA, and many more awards for rigorously-verified management excellence. The President's Award, the Quality Improvement Prototype Awards- all were part of a major cultural and actual behavioral shift.

What happened? In a word- politics. When the "other side" takes over, there is typically a purge of policies and people. Not always for the better.

Can we manage to achieve better management? We can and we have.

Tue, May 16, 2017 Owen Ambur Hilton Head, SC

The fact that management themes recur across administrations is not a bad thing. Indeed, the goal should be continuous improvement. The problem is the lack of metrics by which progress can be evaluated, a problem that could be solved if agencies were to comply with section 10 of GPRAMA, which requires them to publish their performance reports in open, standard, machine-readable format.

Tue, May 16, 2017 mike moxcey

If the project isn't working, examine your assumptions. How well do private _congolomerates_ work? And how efficient are their internal systems? The government isn't one single entity, like a privately-held corporation. And if you want to fix management, look at the top. Dept of Homeland Security has 22 Agencies that report to 88 different Congressional subcommittees. That problem isn't fixed with software.

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