• Increasing the effectiveness of the federal government is about better outcomes
  • Operational necessity often gets overlooked
  • Thinking about problems in different ways is key

This time next year a new president will be settling into the Oval Office. But what kind of federal government will he or she oversee? Will it be flexible and capable? Will it deliver a positive public impact? Will it be able to address the nuances and challenges that go hand in hand with governing a nation the size and complexity of the US?

The planning for the transition has already begun. In April 2016, senior White House personnel met with aides from rival presidential campaigns to discuss how a seamless transfer of power might be executed. In a two-day meeting hosted by the Partnership for Public Service and with support from The Boston Consulting Group, they mapped out how to ensure the essential business of government will not be disrupted by a new administration taking over.

The Partnership for Public Service is a non-profit, non-partisan organisation based in Washington, DC. Its president and CEO, Max Stier, believes that next January the 45th President will inherit a system that, while hardly inadequate, nonetheless has significant scope for improvement. A veteran of all three branches of the federal system – executive, legislature and judiciary – he is now pushing for positive change.

“Our mission at the Partnership is to increase the effectiveness of the federal government,” he explains. “It’s about improving systems and management in order to ensure better outcomes for the American people.” It’s a mission he is relishing.

Independent – but interlinked

The federal system is – of course – governed by the separation of powers enshrined in the US constitution. But Stier says that, while this has succeeded in safeguarding the necessary checks and balances, today’s generation of officials and policymakers have little awareness of how their counterparts work in the other branches.

“One of the challenges is that without understanding how the others operate, they can’t actually work together in the way that they need to,” he says. “To my mind it is most pronounced in the legislative and executive branches. Members of the legislative branch tend not to understand the fundamental management challenges that are faced by the executive and, as a result, I believe they fail in their supervisory and support role. They fail in their oversight function; they fail in their budgeting function; they fail in their appointments function; and they fail in their legislative function, too – so it’s a real problem.”

The Partnership, however, is seeking to address these issues – and it does so in a number of ways. Its activities include providing assistance to federal agencies to improve their management and operations. The not-for-profit also provides research on, and effective responses to, the workforce challenges facing the federal government, as well as identifying and celebrating successes so they can be replicated across government.

“For me, the starting point is actually having leadership that recognises that its responsibility, first and foremost, is to make our government work effectively,” says Stier. “There is a tendency for government officials to lean into policy and not the execution. But even if you have the best idea, if you can’t get it done then it doesn’t matter. Operational necessity gets overlooked too often in the government context – particularly when people are focused on policy development and crisis management.”

Stier believes that what would help address this issue, as well as promote greater understanding and collaboration, is greater mobility between the different branches of government. “Having more people spend time in the different branches can only be encouraged,” he says. “There are programmes that take executive branch employees and place them in legislative offices, but there is next to nothing in the reverse. I think that if we had those kinds of swaps to a greater degree, we would improve the understanding and also the effectiveness of the entire government.”

This doesn’t necessarily have to be done via an official exchange programme. Shorter, more informal options are also available, he believes. “You could create some regular communication or orientation that better educates the members of the respective branches about the challenges and opportunities in each of their particular spheres. I think that the more you can get people to walk in each other’s shoes, the better that understanding will actually be.”

The lack of understanding about each other’s roles and responsibilities has consequences, he says, citing a recent piece in Politico that highlighted how the Senate’s frequent hold-up of political appointments has left many positions vacant in the Obama administration. “This tactic has morphed into a political weapon,” he concedes. “But they don’t understand that this political weapon is actually something that causes a lot of damage to the shared goals of both institutions. It also means that the executive is not performing at the level that the American people want – in part because the prolonged leadership vacancies mean key decisions are not being made.”

Partnership for public service: bridging the divide

A core aspect of the Partnership’s approach is its non-partisan stance. In a city where deep ideological division has taken root, both Democrats and Republicans adorn the non-profit’s organisational chart. Stier says that this reflects the fundamental belief that it doesn’t matter if you’re in favour of bigger or smaller government, what matters is its effectiveness. That said, he remains concerned about the level of partisan rancour both within the beltway and beyond.

“Everyone loves to say how things are worse now than they have ever been,” he says. “But if you go back in history, there are certainly periods of time when there were people literally physically attacking each other on the Senate floor. Thankfully that no longer happens – so one might argue that there have been worse occasions. But I think the world has changed in some pretty dramatic ways, and the  inability of government institutions to keep up is extremely problematic. What might have been acceptable in the past is simply too dangerous today. This doesn’t mean that political differences aren’t to be expected, but the question is how they are exhibited.”

Another problem is that recruiting the next generation of talent is being stymied by the government’s inability to identify where it needs the most help. “The primary challenge is not attracting more talented young people to  government service, but actually getting the government itself to take advantage of the talent which is already interested,” says Stier. “Talent is seen as an HR preserve rather than a leadership preserve. And HR often defaults to process issues rather than making assessments of what types of skills are actually needed to make government better.”

The severity of these issues, however, has not dampened Stier’s intrinsic optimism about the future shape, performance and impact of the federal government. Not for him any doom-laden notions of what may lie ahead. Instead his is a perspective that believes government will always be of the people and for the people – it just needs a little nudging in the right direction.

“There are so many things that are fixable and can be improved,” he concludes. “While we live in a world where there seem to be so many fundamental and intractable problems, there is no need for a tectonic shift. Part of the answer is to apply smart new management principles, think about problems in different ways, and ensure we have capable leaders in place – and the results will follow.”

 

FURTHER READING

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  • Beltway and beyond. A former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams’ view on public impact has been shaped by decades of public service. He shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
  • DC despatch. Kate Josephs reflects on her experiences driving performance improvement in the British and US governments
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O’Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
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  • Doorway to delivery. Kevin Donahue has spent his career seeking to harness the power of data to improve government services. He tells Adrian Brown why good data is not an end in itself, but rather an opportunity to achieve better citizen outcomes
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