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History shows why management reform so often fails

May. 20, 2014 - 01:15PM   |  
By ALAN BALUTIS   |   Comments
Alan Balutis is a distinguished fellow and senior director, U. S. Public Sector, Cisco Systems. His 28 years in the federal sector were spent at the Department of Commerce, where he headed its management and budget office for over a decade and was its first CIO.
Alan Balutis is a distinguished fellow and senior director, U. S. Public Sector, Cisco Systems. His 28 years in the federal sector were spent at the Department of Commerce, where he headed its management and budget office for over a decade and was its first CIO. ()

A few weeks back, the National Academy of Public Administration and a few other groups sponsored a forum on “Federal Management Leadership Under Five Presidencies.” Senior leaders of the management side of the Office of Management and Budget from the Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations participated in a panel discussion on how each administration promoted governmentwide leadership for budget and management initiatives.

With several Fellows of the Academy representing the Nixon and Carter Administrations in attendance, one could almost trace back to a golden era in public administration and government reform – the Hoover Commissions of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations more than 60 years ago.

Several key points emerged from the discussion. First, think about the management reform agendas (noting that they weren’t always called such) over these decades: government reorganization, Program Planning and Budgeting, Reform ‘88, a Thousand Points of Light, Reinventing Government, and then a Bush 43 and an Obama President’s Management Agenda (same name - different focus). As one of the panelists noted, “With a change of administration, management agendas have changed. This lack of continuity is a major contributor to lack of progress” in management reform.

Second, how many times have government executives witnessed this scenario? A new president takes office, looks across the federal management landscape, and finds the state of financial, human resources, acquisitions and/or information technology management in disrepair. A reform agenda is launched, agencies are graded, but most of them are found wanting across the board. Over the tenure of the president, progress is made, grades slowly change and improve, red lights turn to green, and the administration’s initiatives are deemed successful. But then a new team comes into the White House, looks across the federal management landscape, and finds . . . And off we go again – always with a new team of management gurus (more often consultants, advisors, overseers, reviewers who have never really managed anything but are still considered “experts”) – and usually with a new focus, new priorities, and so on.

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Third, there are unintended consequences that come with many management reforms. Several come immediately to mind from the Clinton-era Reinventing Government (REGO). Personnel background investigations used to be handled by a unit within the Office of Personnel Management before they were privatized under REGO and moved to the private sector. The firm created to perform those reviews has faced criticism recently for clearances given to Eric Snowden and the Navy Yard shooter, the thoroughness of their work, quality control processes and so on. The National Performance Review also fell into the trap of claiming substantial staff savings as a result of their “reinvention.” A newly-elected Republican Congress took steps to capture those savings, resulting in a devastation of the government acquisition workforce from which many agencies have yet to recover.

The concluding recommendations for meaningful reform of the federal government to occur would require:

■Recognition that this issue is not inherently partisan and hence there must be continuity across several administrations for change to occur;

■Alignment between Congress and the White House and hence between the Government Accountability Office and OMB; and,

■Fundamental rethinking of the budget process.

Unthinkable? Impossible? I surely hope not!

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