The U.S. government must catch up with the private sector’s use of information technology in order to improve programs and overcome public skepticism about Washington’s ability to deliver effective services, said White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag in a speech at the Center for American Progress.
From speeding up the patent application process to consolidating hundreds of redundant federal data centers, improving IT will boost lagging government productivity and deliver higher-performing services while also shrinking the budget deficit, said Orszag. “Closing the IT gap is perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government,” he said.
Orszag spoke at an event sponsored by Doing What Works, a CAP project undertaken in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Campaign for American Workers. Doing What Works advocates for a more efficient government by eliminating excess spending, boosting productivity, and making outcomes-based policy decisions.
Orszag’s said in his speech, which was previewed on the front page of The Washington Post, that achieving those goals means focusing on execution—the less glamorous side of public policy.
“Just as the dog that doesn’t bark doesn’t get any attention, effective implementation does not garner the headlines,” Orszag told an overflow audience of more than 150 journalists and management officials. “But it is central to making government work better, reducing waste, and actually delivering the services people want and need.”
Sen. Tom Daschle, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at American Progress, introduced Orszag by echoing that sentiment. “Policies may be smart and well crafted, but they will fall short if government is not ready to execute,” he said.
“Now, more than ever, it is important that the federal government spends money wisely. Our fiscal challenges demand that government direct resources where they are needed most and to efforts that generate the greatest returns,” Daschle said.
Americans want government to do more, but two-thirds of the public believes that government programs are inefficient and wasteful, according to the Pew Center, Orszag said. “In effect, Americans have determined that their government cannot deliver what they want, an unsustainable fact for the life of our democracy,” he said.
Key to earning back the public’s trust is boosting the productivity of government programs, Orszag said. Public sector productivity matched that of the private sector until 1987, when IT innovations led to a burst of private industry productivity. The public sector failed to keep up, Orszag said.
“Closing the IT gap is the key differentiator of our effort to make government more efficient from past attempts to improve government,” he said. One solution championed by the White House is a federal information technology “dashboard,” or interactive graphic display of the Obama administration’s $80 billion in IT spending.
The dashboard has already allowed agencies such as the Veterans Administration to more accurately identify projects that work and terminate those that don’t, according to Orszag.
The government’s new cloud computing initiative, which will centralize computing operations and reduce costs associated with infrastructure, can similarly reduce waste through better technology, according to Orszag. He noted that IBM has reduced the number of its data centers from 285 to 12, and Hewlett-Packard has gone from 12 data centers to just one, while the number of federal government data centers has actually increased from 432 to more than 1,100 since 1998.
The IT agenda is part of the administration’s overall focus on results-oriented management, Orszag said. He announced in his speech that OMB has directed all government agencies to come up with a 5 percent budget reduction by cutting those programs that least contribute to the agency mission.
Asked whether the administration’s plans to reduce spending might hurt economic recovery, Orszag said that creating jobs was a priority in the short term, but that a long-term crisis loomed without more efficient government. “The debate about jobs versus the deficit is a false choice, he said. “We have to be acting aggressively” to address both problems. “Ultimately, the goal is not to cut for cutting’s sake, but to modernize and reform government.”