The Federal Government has an overriding obligation to American taxpayers. It should perform its functions efficiently and effectively while ensuring that its actions result in the best value for the taxpayers. - President Obama (March 2009).

Last month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) launched a new two-year project called “Doing What Works”. The aim of the project is to analyse government spending performance, to ensure resources are focused where they’re needed the most, and on efforts that generate the greatest returns.

The project aims to demonstrate how government could achieve results at lower cost, set priorities based on outcomes and efficacy, and restore public confidence that government spending works. It is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Campaign for American Workers, and includes experts from government advocacy groups like OMBWatch and the Sunlight Foundation.

On announcing the initiative John Pedesta (President of the Center for America Progress) explained how the federal government needed to operate more efficiently, boost its productivity and direct its resources where they’re needed the most and on efforts that generate the greatest returns.

Approaches that prove effective should be replicated. Those that perform poorly should be redesigned to boost results. And those that are redundant, misguided or misdirected should be eliminated.

President Obama’s Chief Performance Officer, Jeffrey Zients, addressed the event and explained how the U.S. government must and will “do more with less”.

Zients on Inefficiency, Strategies to improve and Early Success

Jeffrey Zients and the Obama administration have already taken a number of important steps to set high goals, strengthen performance evaluation and cut waste in federal contracting and other operational systems. While these actions present an ambitious agenda to transform and modernize the way the government does its business, more is necessary. There still exists many examples of inefficiency within the federal government, that contribute to a continuing perception that government wastes taxpayers dollars:

[...] The Department of Veteran Affairs still processes disability claims by hand, passing manila folders six to 12 inches thick from metal desktop to metal desktop. Veterans wait 160 days to receive their benefits.

[...] The Patent Office, the institution right at the center of protecting and promoting innovation, now receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically. That’s good. However, these applications are then manually printed out, rescanned and entered into an outdated case management system. The average processing time for a patent is about 3 years.

These types of antiquated processes are too common across government.

In order to improve performance and eliminate these kinds of “antiquated processes” he presented 6 strategies which he is working on (quoted from the event):

  • Eliminating Waste – The most sustainable way to save money is not to trim around the margins, but rather to cut what doesn’t work, what is duplicative and what is outdated. Through the line by line review of the 2010 budget, we identified 121 program terminations, reductions and savings totaling $17 billion.
  • Drive top priorities – In most organization, leaders set priorities and then drive the organization to meet these goals. This is hard in government because senior political leaders tend to focus on policy development in crisis management – not execution and not implementation. To focus senior agency leaders on getting the most important things done, we launched the High Priority Performance Goal initiative in June 2009
    [...] If you take a look at the High Priority Performance Goals, you will see three attributes. First, the goals are aligned closely with the agencies’ missions…You will also notice that many goals span across agencies, attacking the problem that the government too often works in tight silos, in programs, bureaus and departments…They’re working together with a shared goal to reduce the homeless veteran population by 70 percent by the end of 2012.
  • Leverage purchasing scale – The federal government is far and away the world’s largest purchaser. We buy over $500 billion of goods and services every year. Despite this scale, we too often do not get the best prices or value for our money. And our contracting processes are slow and cumbersome.
    The president has committed to saving $40 billion through contracting reform by the end of FY 2011. This serves as an important catalyst to push us to action. How do we do this? To start, we need to leverage our purchasing power and buy smarter. We need to work across agencies to take advantage of our scale. Take the simple example of office supplies. Over 100 federal organizations have separate contracts for office supplies. As a result, they’re paying 30 to 50 percent different prices on any given day for the exact same pens and paper.
    We do our purchasing like we’re 100 medium-sized businesses, not the world’s single largest purchaser. By standardizing specs for commonly purchased items and working together across silos, we can pool our purchasing power to leverage our size and lower cost.
  • Close the IT performance gap – I believe IT represents the largest gap between the private and public sectors. Technology has been at the center of those private-sector productivity gains across the past two decades – both efficiency gains and service quality improvements. For the most part, the federal government hasn’t participated in these gains. In service quality, we’re falling further and further behind.
    If you can book dinner for an airline flight online, then why shouldn’t you be able to make an appointment at the local social security office the same way? On the efficiency front, the story is the same. We have antiquated systems and processes throughout many agencies. For example, the government system for managing retirement records is stuck in a different era.

    Here it is, a cave in Boyers, Pennsylvania. Yes, a cave and, yes, the retirement records are stored in 35,000 metal file cabinets. It reminds me of that famous last scene at the end of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
    Every major IT project is rated against performance expectations and we’ve launched tech stat review sessions and accountability sessions. If a project is over budget or behind schedule or not performing up to expectations, we will either develop a credible turnaround plan or we will terminate it.
  • Open government -Let’s turn to the next strategy, open government. That’s about opening ourselves up to get feedback that can help us perform better. The president has committed to an unprecedented level of openness. In terms of performance, opening government gets us two things.
    First, it makes us more accountable (e.g. USAspending.gov and Recovery.gov) by holding our feet to the fire. Second, it accelerates innovation (e.g. SAVE Award) by engaging the best minds to get to the best solutions.
  • Attract and motivate top talent. – Too often, we don’t focus on people as a primary tool for achieving our missions and we underinvest in training and development. To attract and retain the best people, we need to fundamentally rethink how we both hire and develop our employees.
    [...] You need all three of these slides in eight-point font to map out the hiring process at HUD. It’s a 40-step process. Nineteen different signatures are required, 139 days from start to finish. Not surprisingly, this results in terrible satisfaction scores from both managers and applicants. And HUD’s 139 days to hire is not the exception.In fact, it’s right at the average across all agencies. I spend a lot of time recruiting in the private sector and my experience is that the best people don’t loiter for five months. They find another home.
    [...] Our goal is to cut the hiring time at least in half. We will focus on making the process more candidate-friendly and less bureaucratic. Starting with short, plain language, job descriptions, not 20-page documents full of government lingo. Requesting resumes and cover letters, not burdensome essays that don’t predict performance anyhow.

In conclusion, Zients explained how collaboration and an emphasis on success can bring about the organisational changes required to enable the government to “do more with less”. This spirit of collaboration has been one of the essential tenets of the Open Government initiative, with executive departments and agencies expected to ‘use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves and across all levels of Government‘:

We’re working with the agencies not from a compliance perspective, but with a collaborative spirit that acknowledges that we’re all after the same result. This focused collaboration is a key lever for driving change. But leaders have also got to convince people within the organization that change is possible.

Too often, I believe, organizations spend too much time thinking about and planning for change management and all the steps that are needed to prepare the organization for change. My strong belief is that the best way to prepare an organization for change is by changing and by celebrating the early wins that build change muscles and convince people that change is not only possible, but right within their reach.

After outlining examples of inefficiencies and a path forward, Zeints highlighted some early wins:

    Across the government, there are examples of public servants and agencies who are demonstrating this point with early wins.Like Nancy Fichtner, who recently won the SAVE Award and met with the president for suggesting that veterans, leading VA hospitals should keep their medications rather than throwing them out and then having to reorder them at the local pharmacy.
    The procurement executive at NNSA who saved 18 percent through eBay-like auctions in reverse, where contractors bid down the price for the services they’re competing for. Or the CIO and his team at the VA who pulled the plug on 12 IT projects when they saw how off-track they were. Or the team at Citizen and Immigration Services, the old INS, which in just 90 days, replaced its opaque application process with a transparent tracking system that allows people to check their status online, better and cheaper.

How Doing What Works facilitates these objectives

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government. – President Obama’s inauguration address.

Doing what works

Doing what works seeks to realise the vision of a more efficient, accountable and transparent government, that can meet crucial national priorities with less resources.

The project will focus on three areas (overlapping with the strategies outlined by Jeffery Zeints):

  • Eliminating or redesigning misguided programs and tax expenditures focused on areas such as health care, energy and education;
  • Boosting government productivity by streamlining management and improving human resources, IT and contracting;
  • Develop a foundation for better decision making through a transparent and metric based approach.

Achieving this objectives will require elected officials and federal agency leaders and managers to:

  • Challenge the status quo
  • Measure what works

  • Experiment with what works
  • Coordinate and consolidate
  • Enlist the public
  • Be ready to execute

Along with this, the project seeks to address the public’s mistrust in government’s ability to do what’s right. Some 61% of the public agreed that government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Such mistrust is a significant barrier to advancing the policies above and those outlined by Zeints.

Public attitudes will not change unless the public sees that government is acting responsibly and working to deliver maximum return for taxpayer dollars. As such, the CAP released an adjoining paper called “Golden Goals for Government Performance” that provides five case studies of state governments and foreign governments that are leading the way in terms of defining policy goals.

Government Performance

While the Government Performance and Results Act, requires agencies to define goals, there are often so many goals that it is impossible to get a sense of what different government departments and agencies are actually trying to achieve.

The Golden Goals report sets out a federal government performance model based on an analysis of what works at five different governments in the UK, Australia and the US. It examines examples where governments have successfully defined outcome goals that set out what they intend to achieve for society. The examples include:

  • The state of Victoria in Australia in defining goals for government as a whole across a 10-year timeframe in 2000.
  • The commonwealth of Virginia adopted a similar approach in 2004 by building consensus across state Democratic and Republican party lines, and involving the legislature, executive branch, and citizen and business leaders in defining success for Virginia should look like.
  • The government of Scotland followed the Virginia model, but has gone further by adopting a single overall goal for government, focused on increasing sustainable economic growth that sits above five strategic objectives, including promoting a smarter and a greener Scotland.
  • The state of Washington took a slightly different approach by redefining the way budgets are set. After the formulation of goals across government, agencies work together to rank potential programs depending on their likely contribution to the goals.
  • The United Kingdom first adopted a set of clear government performance goals across government departments and agencies as part of the budgeting process in 1998. These goals cover the whole range of government activity, from international development to educational attainment and from crime reduction to community relations.

Summary

Last year’s report from OMBWatch on Building a Better Government Performance System outlined various recommendations for reforming current performance systems used by Government. These included changes to PART and GPRA, Promoting Leadership and Accountability, Fostering Policy Innovation and Owernership with Positive Reinforcement, Balancing the roles of OMB and Agencies, Engaging outside Stakeholders and Improving Data. Over-and-above this, however, they specified 6 principles that should guide the Obama administration in its efforts to reform and enhance government performance systems.

These principles include: Enhancing the Public’s right to know how well Government programs work; Strengthening Leadership and Accountability from Top to Bottom, Building on Current Systems rather than creating new ones, Re-Balancing the roles of OMB and Federal Agencies; Improving Performance and Accountability with Positive Reinforcement and Seeking input from Outside Stakeholders. All these principles are contained within CAP’s Doing What Works agenda and Zeints’s performance strategies.

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