Don't Wait for Congress to Improve Agency Effectiveness

by Steve Goodrich

April 16, 2015

We've all heard the stories -- programs that cost too much, duplication and fragmentation, fraud, waste and abuse. You can hardly pick up a federal news report without hearing about a program in some agency that is suspected, or shown, to be in trouble. The yearly reports from GAO attest to the significant issues that abound.

Currently, Congress is working on reintroducing a bill that will help agencies transform their programs so they are efficient, effective, credible, and economical. We all agree that systemic change is needed, but in the hustle and bustle of getting day-to-day activity accomplished, meeting administration agendas, and trying to work in an environment of uncertainty, waste just happens.

The bill, The Government Transformation Act (GTA), will establish a government transformation Board or Office that will assess programs, make recommendations for efficiency, effectiveness, and economy, ensure the transformation takes place, reassess, and the report to Congress and the President. It also may include a requirement for the Board to be a repository of sharing best practices, promulgating known opportunities for improvement where good government programs are succeeding and can be repeated. Federal employees would populate the Board, and be trained in program efficiency and effectiveness. Those employees on assigned detail would become champions, building a culture across government of efficiency and helping to make strong decisions for effective programs to serve the American people without wasting money.

With today's budgets, it is difficult to put money toward agency or program level transformation. This bill, if passed, will provide agencies with a platform for getting it done so that the trains can run on time and Congress and the President will have a tool to ensure our government runs as efficiently and effectively as possible. This would free up funding to apply to critical needs.

But why wait for GTA to pass? Agency leaders can take the initiative now to lay the groundwork for efficiency and effectiveness.

Embrace the DATA Act. I realize this is another unfunded mandate and it will be a significant lift for agencies to be ready in two and a half years. Once in place, however, agency leaders should have a plethora of data and analytical capacity to make decisions on programs' performance, duplication, and strategy. The DATA Act is a precursor to improved performance. Embrace it, learn from others, and implement it as quickly as you can.

Make your COO responsible for efficiency and effectiveness. Put someone in charge of ensuring programs are conceived, designed, developed, and implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible. Require people to propose and defend program proposals that include how efficiency and effectiveness will be achieved. Where possible, require them to include a review of other organizations, identifying where similar programs are working effectively, and how efficiencies and effectiveness is proven and can be adopted. Further, train, reward, and hold employees accountable for efficiency and effectiveness. Make it a requirement for project and program managers, their deputies and senior staff before being certified to run a program. When there is focus, the job usually gets done right.

Require ROI or ROE from every program. Return on Investment or Return on Expectations is critical. Program reviews should continually address either one or both. They keeps program managers and their teams focused as well. While ROI is not possible or practical for everything, it is for most. ROE can augment or replace ROI in certain circumstances. Establish clear measures, manage to those measures and report the results to all. Only good can come from being honest, accurate, and transparent.

Start Small - Go Big. Find low hanging fruit within your agency to develop a culture and the requisite skill sets, make change, prove it can be done and then go bigger. For example, take a small drug control program, ring out efficiencies and demonstrate with data that it is working. Return money to the Treasury and then show the world what you have done. Culturally, returning money to the Treasury should be seen as a positive act.

Share what you do. When you have developed efficient and effective methods, programs and outcomes share your results with other agencies. Proactively create venues where you can inform and transfer these practices to others. Offer your processes, policies, documentation, tools and techniques. This helps spread the learning and establish cultural norms across government. A few years back, an agency wanted to build a new data warehouse and analytical system at a cost of $50 million. We took them to visit another agency that already had the same system up and running. This agency offered their documentation, code, and even staff for a few months to help transfer the system. The impact would have been to reduce the cost to $2 million, and have the agency up and running in six months rather than two years. Sharing can pay off big.

Promote Shared Services. The government has danced around shared services and agencies have not always embraced it. Current SSC's have some but not full capacity and need technology upgrades. But it is possible to move quickly. Congress must invest in shared services with a clear ROI/ROE determined. Agency leaders need to become vocal and demand shared services become the new normal . Eliminate redundancy, centralize core services, be efficient and save money.

The power to act and create a more effective way of achieving the government's mission is possible. Other countries such as Canada, the UK, and France have come a long way already. Leaders do not have to wait for Congress or OMB, you can do it now.

 

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