Process Improvement in Government

I was gratified to read about President Trump’s executive order requiring agency and departmental heads to come up with a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the federal government. It’s long overdue.

It did make me wonder, however, about the last such initiative now a generation old—President Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” project. As it turns out, as noted in this article at Governing, “Reinventing Government’s” legacy is mixed:

There’s no question states and localities function differently today than they did 25 years ago. Performance management systems, though not universally beloved, have become widespread. Departments and agencies routinely measure customer satisfaction. Advances in information technology have allowed governments to develop and share outcomes more easily than ever before. Some watchdog groups consider linking outcomes to budgets — also known as performance-based budgeting — to be a best practice. Government executives in many places talk about “innovation” as if they were Silicon Valley executives. This represents real, undeniable change.

Yet despite a generation of reinvention, government is less trusted than ever before. Performance management systems are sometimes seen not as an instrument of reform but as an obstacle to it. Performance-based budgeting has had successes, but they have rarely been sustained.

I always found the idea amusing that people whose entire careers had been within government could successfully emulate the strategies that businesses have used to become more effective. Cats like warm, cozy fires but they’re incapable of managing their own.

Besides the incentives are just too different. We’ll see occasional spasms of reform, frequently coinciding with election years or changes in administrations, but not what’s really needed.

What’s really needed is a culture of continuous improvement, the sort of thing pioneered by Toyota a couple of generations ago. That’s not something that can be done in a short spurt of effort.

15 comments… add one
  • Ben Wolf

    Trump did not submit a plan for improvement of the Executive Branch. He’s figured out that being president is not at all like being a CEO and unilaterally calling the shots, so he’s ordered blitzkrieg for gutting all resistance. Look at Trump’s history in reorganizing institutions and tell me with a straight face this one will go well.

  • No, of course not. I don’t know whether it will go well or not and, honestly, that’s peripheral to my point.

    My point is that rather than trying to reorganize the executive branch every 25 years we should be implementing a culture of continuous improvement in government. That’s what successful businesses are doing and the only barrier to doing it within the executive branch is the resistance of the people working in it.

    That we do not have such a culture is manifest. The executive branch is mired in the 1950s.

  • Ben Wolf

    Look at the criteria for improvement:

    (i) whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are appropriate for the Federal Government or would be better left to State or local governments or to the private sector through free enterprise;

    (ii) whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are redundant, including with those of another agency, component, or program;

    (iii) whether certain administrative capabilities necessary for operating an agency, a component, or a program are redundant with those of another agency, component, or program;

    (iv) whether the costs of continuing to operate an agency, a component, or a program are justified by the public benefits it provides; and

    (v) the costs of shutting down or merging agencies, components, or programs, including the costs of addressing the equities of affected agency staff.

    Determination of these is entirely arbitrary, by political appointees subject to being what the president wants to hear. In fact the wording of the criteria is so broad that anything at all could be justified. The only way it will result in anything resembling improvement is if one goes by the effectively useless metrics of how many dollars are being spent or how many people are employed, with less equaling “better”.

    How are “costs” of a program or agency determined? Costs of what? How is the value of the public benefits determined? Value to whom? To the president, to his aides or to the people who actually are served by them? The answers they come up with are based upon what assumptions? I’ll predict right now we’ll only get answers once these criteria are challenged in court.

  • Guarneri

    “I always found the idea amusing that people whose entire careers had been within government could successfully emulate the strategies that businesses have used to become more effective.”

    Heh. To the point that it is hard to imagine we would hire someone with a career in government. A totally different mindset. It would be a rare bird.

    I will say this, and I yield to no one in my criticism of IL, but the usual whipping boy of government criticism, the DMV, is one agency that I always found operated reasonably well. It’s not an impossible task.

    I contrast it with FL where I have recently had to get a new license and registration. It’s a mess here. The biggest problem is language, not process per se. Many well meaning employees have almost unintelligible accents. And so many of the applicants don’t speak a lick of English. The process grinds to a standstill. It would seem an easy fix to pair Spanish speaking applicants with employees in separate lines. Just saying.

  • Andy

    Dave,

    The irony is that a lot of people who work in government end up getting MBA’s.

    Ben,

    Not sure I understand your point – it sounds like you’re saying that government reform is basically impossible.

    Drew,

    Here on the east coast of Florida the DMV is pretty good. Only issues I’ve had are crowds at peak times and me not reading the website first to ensure I brought all the documentation I needed.

  • steve

    I agree completely that it should be a constant and ongoing process. It requires good metrics and the willingness to change. Good leadership matters a lot.

    Steve

  • Good leadership matters a lot.

    Sadly, our system is not conducive to good leadership for the simple reason that we don’t select presidents based on their leadership skills and we haven’t for decades.

    I believe we’ve reached the point at which we should divide the presidency into a CEO and a COO with the COO being hired by the president and the Congress rather than elected.

  • Ben Wolf

    Andy,

    How can government be reformed when its reformers can’t or won’t define the specifics of the reform? In the way the word is commonly used, government reform is impossible, because it doesn’t mean anything.

  • Guarneri

    “I believe we’ve reached the point at which we should divide the presidency into a CEO and a COO with the COO being hired by the president and the Congress rather than elected.”

    Like the structure. Not sure why the COO can’t be a Presidents appointment.

  • Guarneri

    Andy

    I believe you. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with competence or attitude. Just the language barrier.

  • Not sure why the COO can’t be a Presidents appointment.

    I’m trying somewhat desperately to maintain our basic structure. Our system as defined has a strong Congress and a relatively weak president that has transmogrified over time and Congressional cowardice and fecklessness into a strong president and a do-nothing Congress. I’d like to keep Congress in the picture.

    I also think that the COO needs to be able to operate somewhat outside politics.

  • steve

    Ok, you all know that it takes more than just one good leader at the top. It takes leadership at many levels. The COO idea is intriguing, but you need them several layers down after that. Given how we turn over things with elections that makes it more difficult. Also, to be fair to those who are trying to run things 4 years at a time, how much authority do they have to fire the GS type folks? (I don’t really know.) I am convinced that if you don’t really have the authority to fire people your chances of major change are slim. Lots of responsibility and no authority is a bad place to be.

    Steve

  • Lots of responsibility and no authority is a bad place to be.

    You’re preaching to the choir. That’s the story of my life.

  • Ben Wolf

    What is Donald Trump’s political philosophy?

  • Andy

    Ben,

    “How can government be reformed when its reformers can’t or won’t define the specifics of the reform?”

    Since there don’t seem to be any actual reformers that’s hard to know. I have a lot of suggestions if anyone is interested in putting me in charge….

    Drew,

    Since the immigrants over here are primarily from New York and New Jersey, the language barrier isn’t a yuge issue.

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