According to a December 2013 Gallup Poll, 65 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with how government works. In October 2013, the Pew Research Center said 70 percent of Americans do not trust the government to do the right thing, and 85 percent are either angry or frustrated with the government.
In 2011, the Center for American Progress reported that 62 percent of the public indicated a desire for improving efficiency and effectiveness of its government. While polls cannot completely represent a nation’s sentiment, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government.
But what does it actually mean for government to be “efficient” or “effective”?
When discussing the effectiveness and efficiency of a program or operation, effectiveness can be defined as the ability to achieve a program’s stated purpose while efficiency is measured by how those stated purposes are achieved.
Effectiveness actually begins by determining if a program is needed, if it is the responsibility of government, and whether it is the best way to achieve the program goals. Effectiveness must also be defined at the program level to enable proper management. If we deliver on-time and accurate retirement checks to annuitants, keep our homeland incident-free, stimulate the economy, provide career-training programs that actually put people in jobs, we are effective.
But how effective is effective enough to make a program worthwhile? We have to acknowledge that a homeland-security effort operating at less than 100 percent is still acceptable, despite not being perfect. As good as we are at instituting prevention technology, systems, policies and structure, we will unfortunately never be 100 percfent effective. But that does not mean we shouldn’t try.
Too many times government also confuses effectiveness with activity. In 1994, for example, President Clinton vowed to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets of America. While this was clearly an action that Clinton hoped would reduce crime, the act of increasing police presence is not inherently effective. Effectiveness cannot be measured by intentions but by the program’s success rate in achieving the intended outcome. In this example, reduced crime rates or higher arrest records directly attributable to the extra officers determine its effectiveness.
While we will not always achieve 100 percent effectiveness in all programs, government leaders should be focused on measuring effectiveness, reporting the results and making adjustments when necessary, even if that means eliminating “ineffective” programs. A farm subsidy program that was critical in 1925 or a telecommunication subsidy that was important in the 1975 may no longer yield the intended outcomes and require overhaul or elimination. Many programs receive strict scrutiny during the throes of a budget crunch, after years of anonymity and funding.
Apart from monitoring and measuring effectiveness, our leadership must also monitor the efficiency of government programs. Leadership at the congressional, White House and agency levels have the responsibility to provide programs with additional resources when necessary and also reduce funding when appropriate. The appropriation of funding, labor, structure and process is where effectiveness meets efficiency.
To achieve effective outcomes, valuable resources must be engaged within a well-designed system. Leaders make decisions every day to design and authorize or apply resources and systems. Sometimes we apply too few resources and inappropriately design the program structure, resulting in unintended outcomes. Other times, we apply too many or the wrong resources to programs. With dwindling resources and a rising national debt, our leadership now more than ever must prioritize spending based on measurable success and efficient use of funds.
Not everything will be perfectly effective or 100 percent efficient, especially in an entity as large and complex as the federal government.
But at some point, the bar must be raised, and politics must give way to make room for standard management practices that empower our leaders to make the right choices that will lead to a more effective, efficient and credible government.
Steve Goodrich is the chief executive officer of the Center for Organizational Excellence and the vice chair of the Government Transformation Initiative.