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Getting big things done: Government process is broken

Jan. 24, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By WILLIAM D. EGGERS and JOHN O'LEARY   |   Comments

Our federal government faces many challenges two wars, double-digit unemployment and a massive imbalance between government spending and revenues, to name a few. But the biggest challenge of all may be fixing the process by which government tackles big challenges.

When we surveyed members of the Senior Executive Service, the elite ranks of federal managers, for our book, 60 percent said the government was less capable of executing large projects today than it was 30 years ago. When your own team tells you things aren't working, that should be a huge wake-up call.

The underlying cause of the problem is systemic the process by which government tackles large undertakings is broken. But instead of working to improve the process, our leaders are holding a national "blame-storming" contest.

Unless we get past the shouting to look under the hood, the problems will continue.

In the 1940s, Edwards Deming, a pioneer of total quality management, went against the conventional wisdom of that time when he taught manufacturing companies that "the worker is not the problem." For Deming, understanding the system was critical to fixing the source of errors. Successful companies, such as Toyota, are fanatical about improving the systems through which they create value. They know that the only way to generate great results with average workers is to have great systems. (Unless you're located in Lake Woebegone, your workers are going to be pretty average.) Systems become even more important the more complex and interrelated the firm's processes become.

What about the extraordinarily complex systems of government? Can an approach such as Deming's help us to better diagnose why some government initiatives succeed and others fail? To find out, we studied more than 75 major initiatives since World War II. We found that like putting a man on the moon, all large public undertakings are a journey. Regardless of the specifics, every government initiative follows a predictable path, a series of steps that we call, somewhat optimistically, the journey to success.

There are lots of ways an initiative can fail, but to succeed the following must occur: You need a good idea, well-designed legislation, political support and strong implementation. Ultimately, a project will be judged on the results it produces.

Today, this process by which we travel from idea to results is too often broken. Those with opposing viewpoints are shut out. Bills are designed for political calculations instead of to work in the real world. Lawmakers celebrate the passing of a bill instead of waiting to see the results. Implementers don't take all the necessary precautions against how an initiative can fail. And re-evaluation of an initiative is seldom done. The results are depressing: Iraq, Katrina, the Big Dig.

To restore a legacy of competence, we first have to take the process of getting big things done in government more seriously.

The successful initiatives we examined from the Marshall Plan to acid rain reduction to putting a man on the moon managed to get the process right. In each case, proponents took time to listen to opposing viewpoints and often incorporated these into the program's design. Lawmakers saw themselves as crafting a design that needed to work in the real world, so sponsors allowed for thoughtful debate, rather ramming their bill through. Once the bill was passed, a political champion recruited a strong manager to lead the implementation, one chosen for managerial ability rather than politics.

The successful implementers we studied took the possibility of failure seriously. They established a dedicated unit to manage the launch, and often tested the program design in smaller pilots before rolling it out more broadly.

Our nation has a proud history of great achievements. Our future, however, is in doubt. To recapture our legacy of accomplishment, we need to rethink the process by which government tackles big challenges.

William D. Eggers is global director of Deloitte's Public Sector research program. John O'Leary is a research fellow at the Ash Institute of the Harvard Kennedy School. Their new book is "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."

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