To the New Administration: Deliver Real Changes
I offer five modest proposals for improving the performance of government. Recently I attended a small but remarkable gathering of industry and government executives where outgoing Obama administration appointees mused wistfully on the successes and failures of their time in office. Many were surprisingly hopeful about the opportunity provided by the new administration’s stated intent to “bust things up.” It was clear these senior government executives were just as frustrated by government bureaucracy as the new administration. The question remains whether the new team will be more effective than these past players in doing something about it. I, for one, take the new administration at its word. So as a senior industry executive who also spent 26 years in uniform, I offer five modest proposals for improving the performance of government. 1. While the vast majority of government employees are public servants in the truest sense, it still is too hard to filter out folks who consistently underperform despite being provided professional development programs and retraining. To fix the federal employment system, make it easier to say, “You’re fired.” This action will make room for more good people. In addition, making it difficult for industry people who take a sabbatical from their private-sector jobs to help to improve government to transition back to industry when their “service” ends only will make this problem worse. Many horrific train wrecks stem, in part, from decisions made by government leaders who essentially have no experience in the industry they are overseeing and therefore have not developed the intuition necessary to tell when something does not “smell right.” To cultivate the talent needed for complex program management, you should build a government-wide network of seasoned program executives who already have “done it” and can help prevent programs from getting derailed. 2. Our adversaries employ their best and brightest minds against us. Too often our government defaults to a system where it contracts for the “lowest priced brains”—from the protection of government networks to mission planning against ISIS. This practice drives the best people away and has a toxic impact on effectiveness. Further, while the government decries middle-class wage degradation as an artifact of corporate greed, this proclivity drives down wages for middle-class contractor’ employees, often by 30 percent or more. If you mean to “Make America Great Again,” eliminate awards on the basis of price alone for “knowledge work.” 3. Today, research is locked within the government department where it is funded; there is no mechanism to share investments among sectors. Make innovation persistent by encouraging cross-agency investment and creating a “marketplace” for sharing government-funded innovation across agencies and departments. Provide training, resources, and tools, such as innovation laboratories, to promote a shared, interagency approach to innovation. 4. Compliance with government regulations often results in unnatural workflows. For example, government price shootouts often force the procurement of low-cost items manufactured in China. Then to comply with the Trade Agreement Act (TAA), those items receive no-value-added “final assembly” in a TAA-compliant country, most often Mexico. Hence, the government creates conditions that incentivize companies to “touch” products anywhere except in the United States. If you want to bring work home, eliminate such practices. 5. Much has been written about an acquisition system crafted to procure planes and ships being ill-suited to procure information technology (IT) systems that evolve at the speed of Moore’s Law. Similarly, a cybersecurity environment that focuses on compliance with an arcane set of government standards is a poor substitute for real security. Instead, adopt a “commercial standards first” mode of operations for IT. Recent government experiments with Silicon Valley-based “digital services” reinforce the point that things get better when the government is willing to suspend the morass of regulations. We have an opportunity to make things better. All of us (in government and industry alike) pray the new administration does not miss this window to deliver real changes in government.