Boosting Government Performance

A CAP event explores the opportunities and challenges of improving the government’s productivity.


Private-sector productivity grew dramatically during the 1990s and helped to fuel that decade’s economic boom, but research suggests that public-sector productivity is flat or even down.

“Improving government productivity—in layman’s terms, demonstrating that the taxpayer is getting results—is central to restoring public confidence and winning support for a wide range of progressive solutions to the big problems that we want to solve,” said Sarah Rosen Wartell, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress, introducing a CAP panel on government productivity held last Friday. Center for American Progress CEO and President John Podesta moderated the panel.

Nancy Killefer, senior director at McKinsey & Company, kicked off the panel by summarizing findings from a new McKinsey report that offers ideas for improving government productivity. At least five elements are necessary for successful reform, she said: a clear mandate from the highest levels of government, elimination of organizational redundancies and mission overlaps, performance metrics that set targets and measure progress, adequate training for government workers to identify and implement productivity gains, and career tracks and rewards that incentivize productivity improvements.

Adopting such reforms would boost government productivity by 5 to 15 percent and yield between $45 billion and $135 billion in annual savings, according to McKinsey estimates.

“Every agency leadership team has got to embrace this and believe that it’s not something that’s being done to them, but something that is going to help them give better service,” Killefer stressed.

Panelists agreed that the bottom needs to buy in too. Workers are the ones who actually carry the reforms, and they know what needs fixing. “How do you actually find the productivity in the government?” said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and former head of President Bill Clinton’s National Performance Review. “Well, you don’t find it at the top. You find it at the borders, you find it in the social security offices, you find it in the people who answer the telephones. That’s where people know what’s working and what isn’t.”

“The whole idea that government workers do good work, and are important, needs to be spread. Because they do have good ideas,” added Anna Burger, the international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

The panelists also stressed personnel training and data gathering as critical parts of productivity reform. Josh Koskinen, interim CEO of Freddie Mac and former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton, stressed that the data should be transparent and longitudinal—so agency leadership, Congress, and the public can track changes over time—and comparable across government. Transparency could help sustain reform efforts over the long term by creating the expectation that the government is continuously focused on improvement.

Koskinen also identified three political barriers to reform and suggested how to overcome them. First, reform must advance in partnership with Congress. Performance measurement will only matter when the appropriations process is guided by program performance.

Second, reform must involve all levels of government. “The silos don’t exist merely within an agency or across federal agencies; the silos exist between the federal government and the state government, and the state government and the people at the local level,” Koskinen said. These silos must be broken down.

Finally, the current appropriations process doesn’t encourage savings and leads to reckless spending. “Every government in the world has the same problem, which is at the end of the year spend everything you possibly can spend so that your appropriators make sure they give you at least the same amount of money the next year,” Kamarck observed. Instead, panelists agreed, government workers should be rewarded for saving.

For more on this event please see the events page.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.