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The Obama team should elevate the departmental CIO position to its rightful level of responsibility and authority. More than 10 years have passed since the so-called Clinger-Cohen law was enacted, establishing the CIO positions and designed to improve and speed up acquisition. A congressional staff report entitled “Computer Chaos” detailed IT initiatives across government that were over budget, behind schedule and not delivering the promised functionality. But soon after the bill's passage, Rep. Bill Clinger retired, Sen. Cohen became Defense Secretary and the Office of Management and Budget took a laissez faire attitude towards implementation. This allowed multiple models across government. Few secretaries set the CIO at the called-for level (reporting to the secretary), or provided the position with sufficient authority, or clarified the domain of responsibility. Recently, as a parting half-hearted gesture to clean up the situation as they were headed out the door, Bush OMB officials floated a letter that would have clarified the role of the CIO in departments and independent agencies. Yet what emerged after final review and clearance did nothing of the kind. In fact, the clear weakening of the guidance from the initial draft demonstrated clearly how little has been done.
There are many ways to think about what a transformed government for the 21st century might look like. You can examine its characteristics: responsive, agile, flatter, seamless, more personalized, transparent, resilient, collaborative and accountable.
These attributes are clearly desirable in government. They are not new; many have been discussed since the 1990s when the Clinton-Gore administration launched the National Performance Review. The current administration also supported them as part of its President’s Management Agenda. Although the attributes are clearly worthy of achievement, no one has drawn a road map for achieving them.
What needs to be done? The federal government can take the following steps to get on the road to transformation.
1. Create different culture by taking advantage of the need for new hires. The next four years will bring an increase in retirements, the retirement tsunami. The resulting openings will offer a unique opportunity for government to recruit individuals with the desired set of skills and behaviors. Historically, managers have received only results from orientation and training of new hires. Newbies often receive little or no preparation for the government workplace.
This can change. For example, managers should design two-week orientations that explore what it means to be a resilient and flexible employee. Participants can discuss skills needed to collaborate, and be more responsive and agile. The government needs to provide skills and behavior training, and a cultural orientation in addition to the traditional technical training many employees receive.
2. Give all employees new collaborative technologies.
We know that the so-called millennials—born after 1980—will furnish the majority of new hires to government. We also know that these young people have grown up using computers and collaborative technologies. The challenge for uninitiated government managers will be learn how to apply these tools—social networking, wikis, blogs and virtual worlds—to make government more connected and less hierarchical. The access to information will change the way government operates and will require consideration of new security and privacy issues and re-engineered processes.
3. Develop new relationships between the government and its contract workforce. A major challenge for the new administration will be to forge a true partnership between employees and contractors. To do so, it will have to transform a relationship that today is adversarial rather than collegial. The number of federal employees may increase in the coming years, but the government will continue to use contractors, and the trend toward a blended workforce will intensify.
A proactive approach is needed to help government employees and contractors better understand their respective roles and find ways to work together effectively. Government needs to build and train its contract officers and program managers, discussing anew what constitutes “inherently government.”
4. Enhance collaboration between the federal government and state and local governments, as well as with the nonprofit and private sectors. The federal government alone cannot effectively respond to all the challenges now facing the nation, ranging from sustaining the environment to combating terrorism. Citizens have more interactions with their local and state governments than they do with the federal government, which argues for a local-state-federal approach rather than the other way around. The next administration must develop new ways to improve intergovernmental collaboration to meet these challenges. This same concept also applies to the federal government’s work with the nonprofit and private sectors. A transformed federal government should no longer try to go it alone.
5. Become more citizen-centric. Citizens want government to work effectively, seamlessly and openly. They don’t care what happens in the back office, but instead are concerned about how quickly their applications are processed, their claims are adjudicated and their questions answered. A transformed government would focus on seamless and transparent interactions between government and citizens. And it would concentrate as much—or more—on responsible execution and operational excellence as on the initiation of new policies or programs.
Those who know me - and think well of me - often say I am a good "connector," in sociology parlance, or an excellent networker, in business development terms.
Others less close to me say, "Is there an event or a reception that this guy doesn’t show up at?"
That said, earlier this week I attend two events. The first was a reception at the National Academy of Public Administration celebrating the release of "A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It." The author is Paul Light of New York University.
Light's analysis deals with what our nation needs to do to avert such failures of competence and decision-making as the Hurricane Katrina response, including the toxic trailers; contractor mismanagement in Iraq; the sub-prime mortgage mess; and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center fiasco.
Want more examples? There’s the recent passport debacle; toys with lead paint; contaminated drugs; even the inability to trace poisoned tomatoes.
Prof. Light catalogs a comprehensive list of reforms and argues for a Hoover-like commission to develop comprehensive management reform recommendations that would then be subjected to an up-or-down vote by the Congress, not unlike the base realignment and closing process.
Light's title is based on Alexander Hamilton's warning in The Federalist Papers about malfunctioning government:
"A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill-executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government."
My second event was the Senior Executive Association Career Executive Leadership Conference. The luncheon speaker was Dr. Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University and author of "The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency". In an amusing and animated address, Professor Lichtman reviewed his unique forecasting system and used it to predict the results of the popular vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Behind the predictive "keys" and the model to which they are applied is a most interesting premise. And it should be noted that the keys he co-developed are based on the study of every presidential election since 1860. They have correctly predicted, well in advance, the results of the popular votes in each of the last six presidential elections. The premise is that what really counts is performance. What really counts is governance.
In other words, an election is really a referendum on how the existing administration has performed.
And so when you puts these two together the obvious conclusion is that the mundane matters of governance, operational excellence and of execution - in other words, of good management - are not so mundane after all.
Good management is not a second or third tier issue, or should not be, for a new president and his administration. Management is in fact one of the most important things that he will do he wants to succeed, and if he wants to be re-elected.
Yes, management matters!
The new president coming into office on January 20, 2009, will face what the current head of the Office of Personnel Management has called a retirement tsunami. According to many experts, 60 percent of the federal government’s rank and file workforce and 90 percent of its top managers will be eligible to retire in the next decade. OPM projections show that nearly 61,000 full-time permanent federal employees will retire in 2008 and that retirements will peak between 2008 and 2010—just as the incoming president is seeking to launch his or her new administration. Over the next five years, the federal government will lose more than 550,000 employees. But the market for recruits has never been more competitive and government agencies are locked in a fierce contest with the private sector.
For government procurement, a wave of retirements could be especially critical. Contracting officers oversee about $400 billion a year in spending and there are concerns that not enough mid-career professionals will be left to replace retirees because of budget and staff cuts in the 1990s that thinned those ranks. In fact, while the federal acquisition workforce has increased only three percent since 1999, federal contracting dollars more than doubled.
Because of efforts to downsize the federal workforce without reducing its functions, the government has also come to rely more and more on the private sector. The problem is especially telling in areas such as intelligence (for staffing surges after the September 11, 2001 attacks), defense (to maintain operations because personnel have been pulled away on military duty) and information technology (as the demand for complex technology has soared).
The result? The ranks of contract workers have grown to 7.5 million, four times the size of the federal civilian workforce itself. The government risks outsourcing all of its expertise.
Some would say that day is already upon us. Staff shortages in the acquisition, and program and project management fields have already been pointed to by the General Accountability Office and various inspectors general as the cause of cost overruns, schedule delays, project failures, and other shortcomings at nearly every department.
Any one of these would be a major challenge for an incoming administration. But their convergence multiplies the difficulty.
Never before has government management mattered more. Never have we more needed new and big ideas—and strong managers and leaders to implement them. And never before have we been so bereft of both.