By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

TechStat: A new way of doing business in Washington?

 There was a fascinating article by Matthew Weigelt on the Federal Computer Week website earlier this week titled Federal CIO pursues relentless efficiency via TechStat meetings. It discussed federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra's plans to bring agencies in for meetings to discuss the status of their major IT projects and to answer questions about what's going on with them.

According to the article, Kundra has already met with officials at the Environmental Protection Agency about one $130 million IT project that's having problems, and Kundra "plans to hold a minimum of three to four meetings a week with different agencies and expects that number to increase," according to the article. Kundra said he’s also telling agency officials "to hold similar TechStat meetings in their own departments."

The phrase "TechStat" is an adaptation of New York City's famous crime-fighting performance measurement system called Compstat, where a key part of the system is meetings where local police commanders were brought in front of headquarters leaders to discuss their performance. This system was later adopted by then-mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore as Citistat, focusing on city government performance in general. "Stat" systems have spread to a number of cities -- locally in the Boston area we have SomerStat in Somerville, a blue-collar community next to Cambridge. And it seems that there will be similar regular Stat meetings between senior OMB or White House officials and agency leaders regarding agency high-priority performance goals that have been identified in the budget, taking British former prime minister Tony Blair's meetings, organized by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, as a possible model.

With Stat meetings coming to Washington, we need some serious thought and experimentation about how best to conduct them. Kundra seems to have a clear model in his mind: He sees them, according to the FCW article, as embodying "a very relentless pursuit of oversight." He's threatening to cancel projects as a result of the meetings. He adds that the memos he writes to agencies on diagnosis and followup actions after these meetings will be public.

But not so fast. There is a very tough balance to be sought in these Stat meetings between their role in providing outside pressure and scrutiny to an agency, and their role as occasions for learning and improvement. In the United Kingdom, this tension is captured by the phrases "challenge" and "support." Kundra's approach seems totally tilted toward the pressure-accountability role of these meetings -- and makes them sound like congressional oversight hearings, complete with every detail being made public.

This fits in with the anti-Washington's mood in the country, which seeks punishment and heads rolling. But a Stat system totally tilted toward this end of the spectrum will produce defensiveness, minimal information sharing and no learning. It may end up making great theater, but come short on producing program improvements. In some sense, this is a repeat of the debate on the best mixture of oversight and team-building to produce good contractor performance, but in the case of agencies and Vivek Kundra -- or of agencies with high-priority goals and OMB officials -- there are even fewer conflicts of motives than would be the case with the government and a private contractor, and thus even less reason to go a one-sided "oversight" route.

I am worried about bringing the assumptions about human psychology, and the primitive management techniques, of the fear industry, which has already devastated the contracting community, into the important realm of using performance measures to improve government performance.

Saturday is Chinese New Year's day, and the next week or so after that will be Spring Festival in conjunction with the Chinese New Year. Best wishes to all Chinese, Taiwanese, and ABC blog readers.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 11, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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