Budget Challenges Demand Doing What Works

Experts discuss systemic reform to eliminate waste across government at CAP’s Doing What Works project launch.

For more on this event, click here.

The U.S. government must and will “do more with less,” said Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients at the launch event for Doing What Works, a Center for American Progress project undertaken in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Campaign for American Workers.

John Podesta, CAP President and CEO, introduced Zients and spoke about the project. A panel discussion followed that included Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates; Eleanor Hill, partner for the government advocacy and public policy practice group at King & Spalding; Nancy Killefer, senior director at McKinsey & Company; and Matt Miller, CAP Senior Fellow. CAP Senior Fellow Jitinder Kohli moderated the panel.

Doing What Works aims to advance government that efficiently allocates scarce resources to achieve greater value and results for the American people. Specifically, the project has three main goals:

  • Eliminating or redesigning misguided spending programs and tax expenditures, focused on priority areas such as health care, energy, and education
  • Boosting government productivity by streamlining management and strengthening operations in the areas of human resources, information technology, and procurement
  • Building a foundation for smarter decision making by enhancing transparency and performance measurement and evaluation

“We have the urgency of the moment,” Zients said. “Mounting deficits and debt are placing enormous pressure on government to cut spending and make every dollar count.”

“Now, more than ever, it’s important that the federal government spend money wisely,” echoed Podesta. “Major challenges in health care, energy, education, and other priority areas may have to be addressed with little or no additional funding.”

Zients proposed to respond with “six strategies that offer the greatest potential to improve performance: eliminate waste, drive top priorities, leverage purchasing scale, close the IT performance gap, open government to get results, and attract and motivate top talent.”

The federal government can learn from the private sector in applying these strategies. “If you can book dinner—or a flight—online, then why shouldn’t you be able to make an appointment at your local Social Security office the same way?” Zients asked.

“Overall, we are going to focus on what works by eliminating waste and driving top priorities. We want to rebuild our contracting and IT infrastructure to 21st century standards and give people a stake in government by fostering a culture of performance through open government and better engagement of our talented workforce,” Zients said.

The 2010 budget contained 121 program cuts, reductions, and savings totaling $17 billion. The new 2011 budget has an additional 126 cuts totaling $23 billion in waste reduction, but this is only the beginning.

Federal programs often perform similar functions, serve the same people, or have resources that could help other programs achieve better results. But many agencies exist in their own solipsistic universe with little to no interagency communication. Budget process reform could help break down these silos and bring together similar programs to cut redundancies and find synergies. We need a “cross-government focus” where all agencies “share lessons learned,” urged Hill.

Still, there is “a lot of work to do within before you consider radical structural change,” Killefer explained.We must “engage the workforce” to challenge the status quo and test new ideas and practices.

The government must showcase specific agencies that have promoted creativity, innovation, and new ideas to “draw lessons” from models of success here and abroad, Miller added. “Risk aversion” needs to be changed because a government that is afraid of risk is afraid of innovation.

“For example…the [U.S.] Patent [and Trademark] Office—the institution responsible for protecting and promoting innovation—now receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically…These applications are then manually printed out, rescanned, and entered into an outdated case management system. The average processing time for a patent is roughly three years,” lamented Zients. This type of antiquated process impedes innovation.

If you work in government, “it’s always about the scandal, what’s gone wrong,” so there’s little incentive to try something innovative where there’s a chance of failure, Kohli said. We must be willing to try new approaches, learn from our mistakes, and apply the lessons for greater results.

Government should also be infused with “a collaborative spirit that acknowledges that we’re all after the same result,” said Zients. “Leaders of major change efforts will tell you that there’s a moment when people shift their perspective, when they stop looking at change as ‘someone else’s job’ and instead embrace it as ‘my job,’ when they stop spotting problems and start implementing solutions. That’s when we’ll begin to turn—to build the belief that change is not just possible, but that it’s happening.”

Waste is not simply a financial issue; “it also erodes citizen trust,” Zients said. Seventy percent or more of the public wants government to do more in areas such as health care, energy, the economy, and education, but 61 percent think the government is always wasteful, according to one recent survey. This mistrust is a significant barrier to advancing policies to address even broadly shared goals.

The public “needs to know that this commitment [to reduce waste] exists,” Garin said, especially in these difficult economic times.“Business as usual” in Washington, D.C. feels unfair when Americans are not experiencing business as usual in their everyday lives.

“Attitudes will not change unless the public sees that government is acting responsibly and working to deliver maximum bang for the taxpayer’s buck,” Podesta said. We need a government that does what works.

For more on this event, click here.

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