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Lean government solves budget woes

A former congressional reformer's idea bypasses inadequate traditional approaches

Mar. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By TOM DAVIS   |   Comments
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Tom Davis (Steven E. Purcell)

With the current governmental budget pressures, the old paradigm of either raising taxes or cutting programs does not fit the political bill. However, reorienting government so that it becomes mission-driven, smart and lean rather than stagnant, bureaucratic and regulation-driven will get us to our desired results faster and with less pain.

Although our private sector leads the world in innovation, creativity and performance, the federal government still operates from roots that developed during the industrial age, with sluggish bureaucracies and a preoccupation with rules and regulations in hierarchical chains of command.

This model accomplished great things in its time, but over the years, it lost salience. Government became bloated, wasteful and ineffective and as the world changed, government failed to change with it.

A hundred years ago, the word “bureaucracy” held a positive connotation. Bureaucracy brought to government what the assembly line brought to manufacturing. Hierarchical authority, functional specialization and merit hiring were the new ideas, inspired by sociologists like Max Weber and political reformers like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

They believed that precision, speed, unambiguity, and the reduction of friction and material and personal costs were all raised to the optimum in a strictly bureaucratic administration.

In the United States, this was given particular relevance where political machines shaped governments into patronage organizations to reward political friends. At the turn of the 19th century, progressives led a movement to create a civil service and limit the power of politicians by creating a professional class of managers insulated from politics. These civil servants, it was expected, would run government in an efficient manner, not tainted by the influence of politicians.

That generation did in fact clean up government, but in solving one set of problems, they laid the foundation for another. By dictating “how things should be done,” regulating the process and controlling inputs, they ignored the outcomes.

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Government evolved into a system with a distinct ethos: slow, inefficient, isolated and impersonal, which is its image today.

This system has survived, not because it is efficient, but because it addresses basic problems. It provided security, stability and a basic sense of fairness and equity. It provided jobs while delivering a basic, one-size-fits-all service.

But as the world has changed, government has not. The incentives remain to protect your turf, to not take risks, to build empires and to protect your programs and your people. As one cabinet officer lamented, “often the mission is not to make a mistake.” Such attitudes stifle innovation, inhibit change and reward the status quo.

Risk recognition

Public and private-sector executives view risks and rewards differently. In the government, almost all of the incentive is to not make mistakes. You can have dozens of successes and nobody notices, but one mistake can get blown up by the inspector general, the media, and in congressional hearings and Government Accountability Office reports.

Few Americans really want government to be run like a business (making quick decisions, behind closed doors and geared toward profit), but government can certainly be more entrepreneurial.

We hear a lot about waste, fraud and abuse, but the fact is that waste in government doesn’t come tied up in neat packages, or appear as a line item. When Congress cuts budgets, it tends to chop off fingers and toes, in many cases jeopardizing — not helping — the mission.

Information technology budgets and transformational incentive budgets are good examples. In the private sector, IT is seen as an investment, and the sooner it is implemented, the sooner savings and efficiencies result. But to Congress and government managers, IT is a line item that is often offered up first for budget cutting to protect people’s jobs.

Waste in government is actually layered throughout the bureaucracy in our business processes, where managers are bound by the process of government and not by the results.

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Smart and lean

Smart Lean Government means tearing down silos, reducing overlap and duplication, and ignoring turf fights in favor of collaboration. It means measuring performance and training and empowering federal employees to achieve outcomes, not adhere to a straitjacket of inputs.

The Service Integration Model has proven highly efficient when organizations are persuaded to use it. Focusing on collaboration and shared information, rather than protecting jurisdiction and turf, are essential if we are to be successful. Incentives need to change.

Programs are not self-correcting, and when they fail, their managers are usually the last ones to know, as they look to their process followed and not the results. In the private sector, markets are self-correcting because viability depends on one’s ability to correct failures.

In government, the responses has traditionally been to throw more money at the problem, and while this may have worked in the past, it is no longer an option. At all levels, a move to smart lean government is necessary.

Tom Davis, director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP, is a former U.S. representative from Virginia and a former chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

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