Scott Quehl is a managing director and leads the Strategic Government Efficiency initiative at Accenture Federal Services. He previously served as CFO and assistant secretary of administration at the Commerce Department.
Federal cost cutting turns first to mission support operations. For information technology services alone, agencies expect to save a reported $2.5 billion over three years, starting in FY2014, according to plans they shared with the Office of Management and Budget. Delivering on such plans calls for urgency and consensus, particularly in departments with multiple component agencies, diverse missions and separate budgets. Experience points to collaborative approaches between departments and component agencies to achieve efficiencies large enough to preserve mission priorities, without stripping the gears off of the support services that enable them.
Inter-agency councils are good places to start, communicating expectations for timing and savings targets, and soliciting advice from agency executives on how best to meet them. This can begin with a department management council, composed of agency heads and chaired by the deputy secretary. Cascading down can be inter-agency councils of chief financial officers, information officers, acquisition, human capital, facility executives. These councils provide expertise and levers to reach across agency boundaries to solve common problems.
The case for change can be more compelling when departments and their agencies speak beyond numbers to what savings can buy. This could mean avoiding furloughs or reductions in force. It might mean moving to 21st Century technology or expanding program coverage or reducing the blow of budget cuts.
It is good to start with agreement on what savings means, and how to count and validate it. Time spent embedding this understanding among managers and practitioners in the field builds integrity of savings metrics and focus on the actions to achieve them.
A handful of metrics beyond savings – reduced time to hire, small and disadvantaged business goals, energy consumption, risk indicators for major systems – can paint a fuller picture of what efficiency and effectiveness means. For example, consolidated purchasing of commonly used IT software, hardware, and administrative systems would not only drive savings metrics by cutting tens of millions in duplicative costs; it could also improve IT risk metrics by freeing component agencies to focus their unique expertise on delivering mission-specific systems on time and on budget.
Advanced analytics can identify cost efficiencies across mission support functions, identifying quick wins to build momentum and making the case for initiatives requiring more time and resources.
Inter-agency councils can shape consensus for enterprise-wide efficiency priorities that, after an initial investment, yield downstream savings. A council of chief financial and information technology officers, for example, can review the business case for a proposed new shared human resource management system. If the council finds the case more compelling than other proposals, it can recommend the new system to the department for inclusion in its budget request. To offset the cost of putting the new system in place, agencies can agree to cut spending in other shared administrative services; mutual input on these tough choices can legitimize final decisions, and spur readiness to implement them. Once the new system is deployed, the savings it yields can flow back to the council’s agencies.
Departments can use an enterprise-wide dashboard to set targets for each component agency and mission support functional area and track results. Dashboard access should be shared broadly among managers and line staff, building common understanding and engagement. Department and agency colleagues can regularly update and reconcile dashboard metrics, identify trends and problems, and point to best practices others should use. Results can be fed into quarterly performance management reviews with department and agency leadership. A continuous flow of mission support efficiency data, from actions on the ground to the deputy secretary, removes a risk posed by fragmented management processes – more effort in the reporting than in the doing.
At little or no cost, leadership can acknowledge employees who promote efficiency. Labor-management fora can be effective places to come to terms on efficiencies. A forum can communicate the business case for why efficiencies are needed, make clear what can be gained or lost if the efficiencies are or are not delivered, and generate alternative approaches to achieving the same goal. One agency combined labor-management partnership with rigorous internal and external reporting on metrics, training, a best-in-class telework program, and solicitation of employee solutions through its Creativity and Innovation Challenge to earn the #1 ranking out of 300 sub-component agencies on the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government released by the Partnership For Public Service. Reduced cycle times and backlogs are promoting our country’s economic competitiveness.
Whether undertaken individually or combined, such approaches acknowledge that meeting savings and other efficiency commitments is a team effort.