Sustained Performance Improvement in Government – On the Importance of Good Governance
I feel “practitioner” is an apt description of myself, having spent much of my career supporting government agencies, with eight of those years “in the trenches” of serving in critical operational roles in government. I spent more than four years at the IRS, with much of it serving as the CIO, and then was asked to return to government, and I served four more years as the CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Through my own experiences and by studying other examples of successful and failed government programs and operations, I developed an understanding of “what works” in government. This new book is my attempt to document what works in a practical guide that can help government leaders (whether the head of an agency or at any management level within an agency) to make changes that can significantly improve an agency’s operations over a reasonable four-year time horizon.
To develop an understanding of “what works,” I first needed to develop an understanding of the categories that result in performance problems for agencies. It boils down to a combination of factors in four problem categories, which are:
- Leadership tenure, expertise, and experience
- Planning and resource alignment
- Program and operational management and oversight
- Resilience and security.
Typically, there is not just one problem category that bedevils an agency, as these tend to be multi-faceted and interrelated categories. The complexity of addressing these problem categories is one of the reasons agencies struggle to drive significant improvement.
So, based on my investigations and own experiences, I defined eight solution functions that, in combination, best address these four problem categories. These solution functions provide a framework for agency improvement. Examples of the eight solution functions include:
People – The Solution Starts with the Employees. Improving a government agency’s effectiveness and efficiency starts with ensuring employees have the needed skills and experience for their positions. Therefore, workforce planning is a crucial element of agency advancement, including understanding the requisite skills and abilities required in a position and providing developmental capabilities through training, mentoring, and on-the-job assignments for agency employees.
Strategic Planning – Beyond a vision and goals. A good strategic plan lays out a well-thought-out vision for an agency, with realistic yet flexible goals and associated objectives. However, for that strategic plan to be a catalyst for change, the plan’s objectives must be supported by planning at the portfolio and program levels. The intended outcomes and benefits of programs must align with and support those strategic objectives.
In my experience, one of the eight solution functions that is most under-appreciated and misunderstood is governance. In the book, I call this function Good Governance – Key Ingredient in Good Decision-Making. Governance is how an organization functions, and in particular, the processes it uses to make its decisions.
For any organization, there are five attributes of good decision-making:
- An organization needs to clearly define what is being decided. Sometimes decisions are made, and we do not realize the downstream effects of those decisions. So, it’s important to have context regarding the scope of the overall impact of the decision.
- A decision involves at least two alternatives. (Even a decision to take specific action or do nothing is two alternatives). It’s essential to have relevant information regarding each alternative, the pros and cons of each, with data and analysis of each presented in an unbiased and objective manner.
- It’s critical to have different experts’ views in the related fields regarding the decision based on their access to the data and analysis. It’s also crucial to understand the views of key stakeholders—those individuals representing organizations most affected by the decision.
- In any larger organization (particularly for a government agency), it needs to be clear who, or what entity, has the authority and responsibility to make the decision. It is dysfunctional if it is not clear who must make the decision. Further, more senior officials or entities should rarely reverse the decisions of the person or entity having decision-making authority in a designated area. Doing so undermines the organization’s ability to effectively delegate decision-making.
- Finally, for a decision to be a good one, it must also be timely, enabling the implementation of the decision to have a positive impact. By failing to make timely decisions, organizations fall into a mode of too often settling for the “do nothing” alternative, which is a decision by default.
So, all government agencies should strive to have a governance model that ensures the use of the attributes of good decision-making. Establishing such a governance model does not guarantee all decisions will be good, but an agency’s performance can be significantly enhanced over time with a good governance model. Yet, in my experience, agency leaders often do not pay nearly enough attention to governance. There is a naivety regarding the rigor that should be instilled in organizations, particularly large ones, to support good decision-making. For government agencies of all sizes, a formal good governance model that becomes embedded in how an agency operates can be of significant and lasting value to an agency’s effectiveness and efficiency in carrying out its mission.
Good governance has benefits beyond just improving an agency’s decision-making ability. If key stakeholders are part of the decision-making process, it helps drive alignment among these stakeholders. For example, evidence shows that IT programs often fail due to ill-defined requirements or poorly managed requirements scope throughout the program’s life-cycle. While true, this is a symptom of a more fundamental underlying cause¾the inability of all key stakeholders in a program to be “on the same page” in defining desired outcomes and approaches to meet those outcomes. In most IT programs, achieving such alignment is not a one-time event occurring at the beginning of a program but an ongoing process critical throughout the strategy, planning, design, development, and fielding of a solution. Therefore, this is an entire life-cycle process. As an IT program evolves, significant change is inevitable and ongoing stakeholder alignment is critical to success. Furthermore, for complex IT systems in government agencies, at least a half-dozen stakeholder organizations must be aligned, including the strategy organization, business or mission owner of the system, IT, finance, procurement, security, and privacy. Having key stakeholders involved in essential program decisions is critical in ensuring such alignment.
Every agency is unique, so there is not a single optimal governance model for government agencies. However, in the book, I describe eleven attributes of good governance that an agency can use to upgrade its governance model. Further, given the scale of most agencies, I describe the need for governance at various levels (the enterprise, portfolio, and program) and provide real-world examples of governance models in use at government agencies.
I have seen first-hand the amazing things government agencies can accomplish when they have experienced, capable leaders, establish a good governance model, adopt best practices tailored for government, and appropriately leverage technology to support improved operations. Change is hard, but through government leaders’ and employees’ efforts focused on implementing the right changes, agencies can significantly improve their operational performance. Under the right conditions, magic can and does happen, and some of that magic can literally change our human experience.
To learn more about Government Can Deliver – A Practitioner’s Guide to Improving Agency Effectiveness and Efficiency and the insights above, you can listen to my interview on The Business of Government Hour.