20th Anniversary
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
What are the lessons for successfully implementing management reforms?

This blog is two in a series.  The IBM Center for The Business of Government turns 20 this year. To commemorate this milestone, we are undertaking a year-long effort to both look back over the last 20 years and to look ahead to envision what government might look like in the next 20 years.

            There have been dozens of management initiatives over the past two decades – both governmentwide and within individual agencies. A recent survey of veteran government managers and public administration academics highlights both those initiatives that they judged as having a high impact and those they judged as having low, or no impact on improving management.

            An earlier blog post rated those initiatives involving technology, the use of data, organizational performance management, and social media as having the highest impact.  In contrast, respondents concluded that initiatives related to improvements to the internal operations of government – human resources, process improvements, acquisition, and structural reorganizations – had the least impact on improving management.

Of the human resources initiatives assessed by survey respondents, “executive development” was rated as having as the highest impact, while initiatives related to workforce planning, succession planning, and pay for performance were rated as having the least impact.  Of the various process improvements surveyed, the use of benchmarking was rated as having the greatest impact. In contrast, initiatives such as the use of balanced scorecards, activity-based contracting, and lean six sigma were rated near the bottom of the survey for impact.  In general, acquisition-related initiatives were rated as having a low impact. Likewise, organization-related initiatives -- such as the creation of innovation offices, the use of cross-agency “CXO” councils (e.g., CFO and CIO councils), and the President’s Management Council – were also rated as having a low impact. Interestingly, though, the creation of “CXO” positions within agencies, such as chief financial officers, chief information officers, etc., were rating as having a moderate impact.

            While the survey doesn’t explain why respondents rated these various management initiatives as having a low impact, it could be because some initiatives were too new to have an impact, such as category management.  Open-ended responses in the survey provide some clues as to why management initiatives may or may not succeed, which we have summarized into three lessons:

Lesson One: In launching management initiatives, government leaders should be cautious not to overload “the system” with too many different reform initiatives concurrently.   One respondent to our survey summed up this phenomenon well, “There have been many attempts at real reform and improvement, but they always end up too many at a time.  The result is that absorption, adoption, and assimilation rates are sluggish and often become distant PowerPoint memories with no impact.”   It was also noted that government leaders should be more selective about which management initiatives to launch.  Another respondent noted, “Many innovations seem to be mostly a 'flavor of the day' effort.  Either that or simply used as an argument that an effort has been made to improve.  I see little in the way of real change.” 

Lesson Two: Government managers should devote more time and effort to the implementation of each new initiative.  While many of the initiatives launched over the last 20 years may have been sound conceptually, many suffered from by poor execution.   One respondent told us, “There have been lots of good ideas, but they rarely have been implemented effectively.”  Another respondent noted, “While government is working better as a result of many management initiatives, much more focus and effort is still needed.”  In evaluating the impact of less successful initiatives, government leaders must assess how well they implemented the initiative – including training needed on the new initiative, as well as the timing of each phase of the new initiative. 

            Lesson Three:  Effective leadership from the top is needed for management initiatives to fully succeed. One respondent commented on management reform, “The missing ingredient is LEADERSHIP.”   Several respondents commented on the turnover of political appointees as a challenge in successfully implementing management reform.   One respondent noted in the context of implementing succession planning in government, “With the significant churn of senior personnel and the length of time required to hire someone, coupled with a significant learning curve, the idea of a planned succession effort is difficult to imagine.  Unless the political leadership is willing to really do strategic planning, there will be no real change.”  Leaders at the top must communicate that management reform is important and devote a significant portion of their time to overseeing implementation of a new initiative.

            Our conclusion, based on our survey and research over the years, is that management reform is not for the faint hearted.  It takes a well-executed implementation plan and commitment from the top.  Management reforms can succeed, as noted earlier, and there is much to be learned from these success stories.