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Achieving real transformation in federal government [Commentary]

April 27, 2017 (Photo Credit: KAREN BLEIER, AFP)
President Trump is the first president in modern history to enter the White House with significant business experience and no real prior government experience.  He was elected, in part, because the American people wanted real change and were tired of the ‘gridlock’ in Washington. The majority view was the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.

President Trump has already seen the impact of having three separate but equal branches of the federal government. He has also exercised the power of the pen and by issuing a number of executive orders and presidential memoranda designed to deliver on his campaign promises and change the way that the federal government operates.

These executive orders cover a range of topics such as regulatory relief and reorganization of the federal government, including addressing duplication, overlap and fragmentation.

The presidential memoranda include an action to create a new White House Office of American Innovation. That office’s mission includes federal government transformation issues to “improve operations and services.” These actions all have intellectual merit but the real question is: How can the Trump administration best achieve its desired objectives?

One of the first things that the administration should do is develop a comprehensive and integrated plan designed to improve the performance and assure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people. One way to do this is to create a positive President’s Management Agenda that would be developed and overseen by the Office of Management and Budget. That agenda could include the concept of creating High Performing Agencies (HPA) within the federal government taking into consideration both government and commercial best practices.

After all, the federal government is a monopoly and it is of critical importance to reach both across and outside of government to define a HPA and determine the critical elements and benchmarks for assessment. OMB and the agencies must have the skills and resources to develop and execute against a strategy and achieve and report on results to all stakeholders and the American people.

The HPA concept is a positive, comprehensive and integrated approach to government transformation that would consider a broad range of issues such as strategic intent, organizational effectiveness (within and across agencies), efficiency, performance management, human capital strength, risk management, and public reporting/interface. It would also address the proper role of the federal government and how best to get the government’s business done, including shared services, public private partnerships, program consolidation, resource sharing and devolution and privatization options. Effective strategies and practices must be documented and shared across agencies to leverage rapid and repeatable cost reduction, increase efficiency and improve effectiveness.

Developing a maturity model framework for implementing the HPA concept has great conceptual merit and has been successfully implemented in a range of areas. It should be developed by OMB with input from federal government employees and with the assistance of a qualified and independent contractor with significant public and private sector experience in this area. A public/private partnership approach to developing, implementing and assessing the state of an agency and the degree of progress that is being made to achieve HPA optimal status is the best way to achieve sustainable success. The periodic assessments would also provide valuable benchmarking information to help provide positive peer pressure for improvement and reflect the actual and relative position of each agency based on the evaluation criteria.

Implementing this approach will also require the active involvement of the various deputy secretaries and their equivalents who serve as the chief operating officers for federal government entities. These individuals need to have appropriate qualifications and should be appointed expeditiously to accelerate action. Once the framework is created these executives must be trained for consistent execution and be required to create “effectiveness champions” throughout their organizations to ensure staying power.

Some of the desired actions resulting from the above effort will require legislative action. The president does not currently have Presidential Reorganization authority at his disposal once his reorganization review is completed and most programs are authorized via budget and legislative action. In addition, many findings relating to programs, policies and processes that are duplicative, overlapping and fragmented, outdated or just simply ineffective will require legislative action to address.

Given the current climate on Capitol Hill, the complex organization structure of the Congress, and the plethora of interest groups with a vested interest in the status quo, a special process is needed to ensure that meritorious proposals to improve the economy, efficiency, effectiveness and credibility of the federal government are considered and acted on in a timely manner.

One way to achieve the above is through creation of a statutory government transformation effort that would be overseen by a small group of capable, credible and non-conflicted individuals. These individuals would identify areas for review based on input from officials in the different branches of government, different levels of government, as well as the private and non-profit sectors. Such areas should consider things like the president’s stated priorities, areas of Congressional interest, the GAO’s Duplication and High Risk List, IG findings and the results of other independent review and evaluation efforts.

The Government Transformation Initiative (GTI), for which we both serve on the board, worked with several members of Congress on a bipartisan basis to develop legislation that would make the above concept a reality. Given the entry of a new administration that is headed by a president with big transformation aspirations for the federal government, it makes sense to pursue a new President’s Management Agenda that incorporates the HPA concept and the GTI initiative. These efforts are complimentary and synergistic. They can result in significant savings for the American taxpayer as well as a more positive view of the federal government by the American people. The statutory nature ensures staying power.

These are outcomes worth pursuing, especially given our current federal fiscal and governance challenges. 

David Walker is a senior adviser for PWC and former U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office.

Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and author of Transforming Government from Congress to the Cubicle .

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