How to Improve Government Performance

Michael Filler

When the past eight years is examined, one conclusion seems self-evident: Neither the president nor Congress has made sufficient progress improving efficiency within the government or engendering the taxpayers belief that the federal government is working effectively.

Personnel flexibilities, demonstration projects and new pay systems have fallen short of producing the kinds of results associated with high-performing organizations.

Mega-agencies such as the Homeland Security and Defense departments continue to experience ongoing difficulties despite being given broad authority to deviate from the existing civil service system. Moreover, when called into action in a highly visible way, the "feds" (e.g., the Federal Emergency Management Administration or Veterans Affairs Department) have not performed well. The causes for these shortcomings include outmoded work systems, inadequate management, understaffing, misdirected priorities and profiteering by certain private sector "partners."

So, what can be done to improve performance and raise the level of confidence in our federal government? For more than a decade, performance systems within a number of states have evolved with a strong emphasis on measuring programs and results. But the best processes cannot affect positive change without the right people. Career employees, who have accepted the value of monitoring performance and the constant need to strive for improvement, are the real drivers within successful governmental entities. They have withstood changes in leadership, and have shown the ability to focus on outcomes rather than outputs.

Retaining a core staff with the knowledge and commitment to integrate objective performance measures as part of the overall performance management system, and linking their achievements to a fair and credible pay system, help to sustain high performance.

Another important consideration is the ongoing review of work processes because few, if any, can remain unchanged for extended periods. Most require periodic modification, and some may be in need of a complete overhaul. Agencies are well advised to initiate those changes rather than having them legislated by Congress or necessitated by an adverse report from the Government Accountability Office or the inspector general.

Nonprofit organizations such as the International City-County Management Association and the National Academy of Public Administration, university-affiliated enterprises such as the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation (Kennedy School of Government at Harvard), and governments such as Fairfax County, Va., are wonderful repositories for constructive idea on improving public administration.

Let success stories—not failures—drive the delivery of public services in a coordinated fashion—one that is supported by labor and management. Unilateral directives by the executive branch, piecemeal proposals by the legislative branch or legality determinations by the judicial branch will not make the government work more effectively for its citizens, as the past eight years have shown.

The philosophy of our next administration should be based on inclusion rather than exclusion, where cooperation is the operating procedure and confrontation is the exception. Many of the productive labor-management experiences from the ’90s, as well as the successes of governmental entities around the country, can be used as a starting point for shaping performance. Then, the public and those dedicated to protecting and serving our society can experience a shared vision of a government that is fulfilling its mission.