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Opinion research shows the public does not believe government is capable of effectively and efficiently executing its responsibilities. This mistrust is a significant barrier to advancing policies to address even the most popular goals. For attitudes to change, the public first and foremost will have to see government acting responsibly and working to deliver maximum bang for the buck.

The nation’s fiscal health makes this especially urgent. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced the administration’s intent to freeze discretionary, nonmilitary spending over the next three years. Major challenges in health care, energy, education, and other priority areas may have to be met with little or no additional funding.

This reality demands that government operate efficiently and direct resources where they are needed most and to efforts that generate the greatest returns. We need a government that does what works.

The Center for American Progress is undertaking a new “Doing What Works” project, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Campaign for American Workers, to advance this objective. Specifically, we will generate and promote ideas to:

  • Eliminate or reform misguided spending programs and tax expenditures to maximize bang for the buck. CAP will identify budget savings and cost-effective investments in priority areas such as health care, education, and energy. Approaches that work well should be replicated. Those that perform poorly should be redesigned to deliver greater returns on investment. And those that are redundant, misguided, or misdirected should be eliminated.
  • Boost government productivity by streamlining management and strengthening operational supports. The private sector becomes more efficient every year, at a long-term rate of 1.64 percent in the United States. Research suggests that the federal government’s productivity, however, is flat or even down. This project will examine successful public- and private-sector strategies in the United States and around the world that could be adopted to institute lean, result-driven management and boost operational productivity in the areas of information technology, human resources, and procurement. McKinsey & Company will contribute research and analysis for this part of the project.
  • Build a foundation for smarter decision making by enhancing performance assessment and transparency. It is now possible—and affordable—to instantaneously collect, aggregate, and analyze enormous volumes of data to measure and evaluate government performance. This information can then be publicly shared and packaged through the Internet. With the right tools, thousands of extra eyes can be enlisted to uncover problems and offer solutions. These new information technologies provide the opportunity to rethink and transform the way government does its business. Yet basic policymaking and management systems remain rooted in another era. Reforms are needed to put decision-makers in position to capitalize on new technological capabilities.

President Barack Obama has committed to pursuing a “doing what works” agenda. During his inaugural address, he said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

This presidential commitment provides an opportunity. And indeed, a number of important actions have already been taken to find budget savings, boost productivity, and provide greater transparency. Yet administrations have a tendency to become distracted by day-to-day events and political battles. If the Obama administration is the same, government transformation will not reach its full potential. The Doing What Works agenda requires sustained attention and effort over many years.

Congress is also an essential part of the equation. Improving performance evaluation matters little if appropriators ignore the results. Nor are we likely to remedy executive branch disorganization if members of Congress cannot work across their own committee silos.

Congress and the executive branch need to see themselves as partners in transformation. Both must change and work together in new ways to realize the opportunities in front of us. This project intends to identify these opportunities and engage the executive branch and Congress to build a government that does what works.