Thought Leadership

Is the Next Administration Ready for Good Government?
10-Jul-2015 Steve Holden
Business Process, Program Management

As pointed out in a recent Washington Post editorial, it’s never too early to start planning for presidential transition and, in particular, how a new president will manage the Federal government once elected. Here’s why it’s worth planning now for a management agenda for the yet as unelected President.

The Federal government is a huge, sprawling enterprise that nearly defies management. Some quick factoids underscore what’s at stake when you consider the size and scope of the Federal government. At the end of fiscal year FY 2014, the number of executive branch employees totaled approximately 2.6 million. The President’s budget requested almost $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending with total Federal spending (discretionary, mandatory and interest payments) exceeding $2.6 trillion. Employment and spending totals, though, barely describe the importance of government in our lives. We still rely on the Federal government for gathering and generating weather data, researching treatments and cures for chronic diseases, delivering the mail, providing for the defense and protection of our homeland and supporting those less fortunate citizens through a vast array of social services.  

Like most citizens, I would prefer that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and go towards ameliorating the real problems of our era. It should not be unreasonable to expect great service, reliable data, and economical spending. But, given the scale and scope of the Federal government, it’s easier said than done. While presidents over time have each had their own management agendas with promises of “fixing” the dreaded bureaucracy of the Federal government, there’s arguably still room for improvement. No recent administration has escaped “management” gaffes that have called into question the effectiveness of their leadership. Profound problems with launch and the response to Hurricane Katrina come to mind as the most recent examples. All presidents of both parties inevitably face similar challenges, which arguably, at their core, are management problems.

The trick is that managing the Federal government does not win elections. Bad management can spoil elections for candidates who have held executive roles like Governor. It’s possible that management problem can complicate re-election changes for a sitting president. Those realities led Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to famously quip, “Good government is good politics.” Despite these realities, it’s still hard to convince candidates scrambling to secure their party’s nominations that they should take from political and policy issues to focus on management. It’s not until a new president gets into the White House that he or she realizes that translating campaign promises into action requires mobilizing (or demobilizing potentially) the leviathan that is the Federal government.

With that in mind, the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for the Business of Government sponsored a recent roundtable laying the groundwork for a management agenda for the next presidential administration. For good government junkies like me, it was a “who’s who” of influential public administration scholars and practitioners. The roundtable included veterans of presidential transitions of both parties and I even met some scholars who authored the textbooks I read in graduate school back in the 80’s and 90’s. For me, though, the more exciting part of the roundtable was meeting a new generation of scholars who talked about innovation and the role of technology in government information and service delivery. 

One topic was the disruptive (in a good way) role of agile in GSA’s 18f—OMB’s Digital Service Team efforts. To some observers, these might appear to be just new management fads that tend to sweep through both private and public sector leadership suites. For us here at Octo, it’s no passing fancy. We have been applying agile concepts to both software development and management approaches for some time and have been able to produce significant results for our clients. Whether it’s more usable software products or a faster implementation of a strategic plan, Agile methodology offers an opportunity to shake the historically low expectations for the quality and speed of “government work.” I was in a vendor meeting recently attended by members of the Digital Services Team who made a point of saying that one of their goals is to retire the old expression “close enough for government work.”

Obviously, a lot of work remains before we can present a management agenda for any incoming President and his or her administration. The good news is that we are starting now. The better news is that there some great people with fresh ideas and lots of experience coming together to make sure that we put forward management practices that can really make the Federal government work better. For me, I’m looking forward to helping to put the “good” back in good government.