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Short-term savings or long-term transformation?

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The Administration released its overarching plan for government reform in June, and federal leaders are now busy unpacking it. We now know which agencies are flagged for reorganization, and which leaders have immediate cost savings on the agenda.

But can delivering on this expectation to show quick savings risk the bigger picture? These same agencies are under pressure to improve performance, modernize technology, and enhance their customer's experience—among other transformation goals in the President's Management Agenda .

For even the most experienced leaders, this is a daunting act to balance. In the battle of innovation versus efficiency, here are three ways that agencies can work smarter in the short term, without losing sight of the greater mission.

Integrate savings into broader strategy

Yes, an efficient government is important -- to the Administration, to Congress, and to taxpayers. But attention to savings, especially short-term savings, shouldn't be the sole focus, and certainly not to the exclusion of effectively advancing an agency's mission. Rather, targeting savings must be part of a balanced, strategic effort to achieving the best return on the federal investment dollar—one that's sustainable for the long-term.

During my tenure at the Department of Commerce, one of our priorities was to redesign our federal grants process, both at Commerce and through an interagency model. But truth be told, the goal to develop a more effective and efficient grant model was a just a piece of the long-term performance targets defined by our own performance measurement logic model and the Government Performance Results Modernization Act (GPRA). Those higher-level targets measured private dollars leveraged, and jobs created and retained.

To track our progress on all fronts, we developed an operating approach and communications plan that showed performance relative to short and medium-term metrics -- and how they were tied to larger strategic outcomes. In addition, our program metrics were integrated into the overall Commerce strategic plan. This multi-level approach to reporting allowed us to effectively align our objectives for the grants program, as well as help Congressional stakeholders and the Office of Management and Budget understand where we stood relative to their performance agenda.

Make your goals meaningful

In Booz Allen's various efforts to develop and execute large-scale agency initiatives, we make this next point often: Take your transformation plan off the shelf. Make it real for employees so they clearly understand the ideal state, the plan for getting there, and each person's role in that journey. Even the most junior staff at the organization should be able to articulate that journey and how they specifically fit into the process.

To operationalize, first, as much as possible, build your short and long-term metrics into employee performance plans -- starting with leadership and cascading down through the organization. This ensures that everyone understands what they're accountable for and can see how their progress is tied to the strategic plan.

Then, make the journey meaningful and transparent to employees, which is difficult with a dispersed workforce (about 85 percent of federal employees live outside the DC metro area ). During this time of change and uncertainty, internal communication is necessary through multiple and frequent channels; emails or quarterly all-hands meetings alone don't cut it. At the Economic Development Administration (EDA), it worked well to assign an individual full-time responsibility for communications so we could be deliberate and effective in our approach. That person was an invaluable conduit to employees, and would come back with honest feedback -- good and bad. For example, we might hear that a certain office wasn't engaged in the change process and our communications lead would advise leadership to travel there and spend face-to-face time with local staff.

Focus on your story -- not the noise

When I was at EDA, there was a bill every year to eliminate the agency. Unsurprisingly, this uncertainty created much stress among employees. Engagement is incredibly hard to sustain in that culture.

What we found most effective was targeting what we could control, and continuing to focus on telling our story of delivering value to citizens, communities, and stakeholders. It was critical to stay aware of the dynamics at the senior political levels, and be as transparent as possible with our employees. But we had to continue to motivate them by communicating the journey to becoming a stronger organization that would better achieve our mission.

In addition, we were very deliberate about collecting success stories -- going beyond reporting requirements to include compelling quantitative and qualitative metrics. With those, we were able to constantly communicate our impact with allies on Capitol Hill, and even take stakeholders to project sites to demonstrate our value first hand. By making our story real -- for example, showing how we significantly impacted a distressed community with limited federal investment—we secured more champions in Congress and the backing to pursue our agency's mission at full force.

With significant reforms underway, it's a demanding time to be a federal leader. The natural inclination may be to keep your head down, with a laser focus on a specific area of responsibility. But to challenge yourself to think more broadly and also find new inspiration, my advice is to deliberately find a peer network beyond your agency to share knowledge with colleagues across government. Breaking down those silos in fact creates new efficiencies, shows how your experience is likely similar to many others, and aligns your immediate goals to a broader journey towards transformation.

About the Author

Matt Erskine, an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development from 2011 to 2017.

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