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Why “Do More with Less” is Wrong

For government managers faced with restrained budgets, hiring freezes, and new mandates, the pressure to do more with existing resources has gained widespread traction. “Wrong” is a bit of an overstatement, but for one government leader, the notion of “doing more with less” misses a central point. Last week, Rafael Borras, Under Secretary for Management at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told a packed room at the Partnership for Public Service that he’s tossed out the widely used cliché. Instead, Borras advocated that agencies and their government managers should actually do the right thing with less.

 

Last week in Washington, Borras was part of a panel discussion for the launch of a new report by the Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton called “Building the Enterprise.” The new resource outlines nine strategies for creating a more effective and integrated government. The central premise of the report is that the government needs a coordinated, multiagency, enterprise approach to facing challenges. This approach contrasts to government’s current organizational structure of holding agencies or “silos of excellence” that largely operate on their own.

 

Building an enterprise is based on the basic notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The authors of the report made the case for improved and increased strategies for interagency collaboration to eliminate fragmentation and overlapping responsibilities. Read more about the rationale behind establishing a stronger enterprise in government and the nine strategies in the full report.

 

At the report launch, Borras was on stage with Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States at the Government Accountability Office, and Beth McGrath, Deputy Chief Management Officer at the Department of Defense. One of the main topics discussed was how to influence constructive and collaborative behavior in government.

 

Organizational Discipline

To do the right thing with less, agencies need to focus on how to execute sustainably and cut inefficiencies. In Borras’ opinion, the problem with “do more with less” is that implies that everything being done by government is in a fixed motion onward, and we simply need to conduct all existing projects cheaper. This mindset evades the tough questions that agencies must be asking, such as, what’s the value add and where are the risks? Sustainable execution requires that agencies make disciplined choices to cancel redundant or inefficient projects. Borras said, “Where you have very low value, but very high risk, dump it."

 

Transparency and Trust

McGrath emphasized the need for transparency. She stated that everything should be put on the table in order to promote better decision-making. Transparency of information breeds constructive behavior. However, this is not easily achieved, as folks are often scared of potentially negative ramifications from information disclosure. Therefore, McGrath added that trust and transparency go hand-in-hand. Government leaders should build a culture of trust so that workers do not view more open reporting as more opportunities for punishment. McGrath advised that information on all projects and programs be loaded into a common tool so that all data is visible.

 

Interagency Cooperation within the Panel

Gene Dodaro from the GAO also had some insights regarding government operations. One of his chief projects is the annual report on Government Efficiency and Effectiveness, which identifies areas where agencies can eliminate fragmentation, duplication, and overlap, achieve costs savings and improve performance. Dodaro and Borras shared that they work together to discuss GAO findings and incorporate recommendations at DHS. Rather than react as adversaries at hearings, they conduct pre-meetings to ensure that they on the same page.

What's your view on government operations? Is an enterprise approach the way forward? 

Take a look at the report here and view the entire event here.

Views: 1736

Tags: DHH, DOD, GAO, Partnership, Public, Service, for, management

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Comment by Kim Truong on August 19, 2013 at 4:35pm

Thanks for the great comments, John and Scott.

Comment by John Sim on August 19, 2013 at 12:27pm

Earlier this year, I committed to literally eliminating the phrase "do more with less" from the language I use and in the conversations we hold in our team.  For us, it was not a source of engagement or empowerment; rather, it was a source of discouragement.  So I applaud Under Secretary Borras' perspective of doing right with less.

Here's another perspective that might be helpful:  D > d

GovExec ran an article a couple of years ago (http://goo.gl/ghd96J) where Executive Coach Scott Eblin pitched the notion that deliverables ("D") were greater than doables ("d").  "If you want to get results, start with what your organization has to deliver and then work your way back to the things to do that will make the biggest contribution to the deliverables.  Another way to think about is that strategy drives tactics."

In these leaner times in government, it's good to think about what absolutely has to get done and separating those from things that are possible or preferable to get done.  

Comment by John Sim on August 19, 2013 at 12:27pm

Earlier this year, I committed to literally eliminating the phrase "do more with less" from the language I use and in the conversations we hold in our team.  For us, it was not a source of engagement or empowerment; rather, it was a source of discouragement.  So I applaud Under Secretary Borras' perspective of doing right with less.

Here's another perspective that might be helpful:  D > d

GovExec ran an article a couple of years ago (http://goo.gl/ghd96J) where Executive Coach Scott Eblin pitched the notion that deliverables ("D") were greater than doables ("d").  "If you want to get results, start with what your organization has to deliver and then work your way back to the things to do that will make the biggest contribution to the deliverables.  Another way to think about is that strategy drives tactics."

In these leaner times in government, it's good to think about what absolutely has to get done and separating those from things that are possible or preferable to get done.  

Comment by Scott Kearby on August 16, 2013 at 3:56pm

Sometimes we are over zealous about what we do ... and we add features and functions that may only be loosely related to our mission because we have the staff & resources to do so, or because we have a particular interest in something new.  It's kind of like how your closets continue to accumulate stuff as long as there is empty space!  A hard contraint (lack of funds, lack of staff, lack of time) can serve a useful purpose to focus the organization on what's essential.

Comment by Kim Truong on August 16, 2013 at 12:49pm

Thank you all for contributing to the discussion. No one phrase, whether it's "do more with less" or "work smarter with less" or "do the right thing with less" captures the complexity of hiring, breaking into agency turf wars, and altering incentives to do the right thing. However, agencies can focus on learning from successful examples of innovation and collaboration, such as the HUD and VA tackling homelessness among veterans. Uncle Sam's List is also a great example of movement towards increased shared services.

Also, check out a two blogs from my colleague, Emily, regarding interagency collaboration/communication and focusing on outcomes.

Comment by Earl Rice on August 16, 2013 at 11:57am

Doing more with less is capable, up to a point, and for short durations.  After that, then less is just less.   And, when we look at it, the number of employees in Federal Civil Service has grown exponentially since 2000.  Many of the causes are obvious, such as over 10 years of War, which has caused DOD, DHS, and other Agencies to show dramatic end strength increases.  Likewise, the use of the Federal Civil Service as a jobs programs of sort has caused growth in the non-National Security area.  Also a consideration, Agencies have been expanding their influence in society well beyond their core functions and expanding the Middle and Upper Management.  One of the things I never, or almost never, hear anyone speak about is the Federal Government Merit Systems, which incorporates the current classification system.  Regardless of the Agency, there are requirements of grade levels and numbers of people supervised, or complexity of work that that sets the grade level of the position.  An example is if you have a GS 15, they have to be in charges of something and have GS 14s under them, and GS14s need GS 13s under them, and so on (though you do find the GS11 and 12 are the full performance level depending on the field).   And, cronyism is very much alive and well, especially in the DC area, and to a lesser extent everywhere.  SESer A wants to hire a friend as a GS15.  They have to bend the rules of law for the Merit System, but they also have to create a force structure to sustain the grade.  End results is not just hiring a friend, but also hiring the other people to support the grade of the GS15.  With this, hiring one friend becomes hiring 20 or more people to support it and creating something for them to do.  Here’s where we get into all the special projects that may not be needed, may not be in the core function of the Agency, and creates low payoffs.   Throw into this mix we have DOD drawing down as the GWOT draws down [don’t believe it really is, but that is the current information coming from the top leadership].  But, as DOD and DHS draw down, the DHHS and IRS are gearing up for Obama Care (which may or may not be fully implemented).  And, adding more problems, rather than hiring the employees into the expansion positions as term employees (limit of 4 years per appointment, with one more if the Agency can write well enough to justify it to OPM), they have been hiring them as permanent employees.  Once a permanent employee has served for 3 years and gets career status, any sort of a draw down would require a Reduction in Force (RIF).  RIF’s always get messy, since they are Veteran/Seniority based.    The hierarchy is new hires are first to go (if you have less than 5 years and are not a Vet, you will get RIFed), and it works up to the Veterans that are the last to go.  Some of the disabled Vets joke that if a RIF would occur, they would be the last ones out, shut the lights off, and lock the front gate to their facility.  This is based upon you would have to RIF all the non-Vets to get to the Vets (in general), and the Disabled Vets are the last of the Vets that would go.  All the furloughs this year were aimed at cutting payroll rather than having a RIF.  DOD looked at it as cutting payroll by furlough days rather than cutting payroll by cutting employees.  But sooner or later, there will have to be RIFs (or you will find employees only making 50% of what they are supposed to be making).  The Agencies can do it by an across the board cut (least efficient way to shape the force), or they can take the initiative, and look at the core functions and eliminate all the special projects (and have a RIF) that do not directly support the core functions.  However, politically, this is suicide.

The reality is: 1. Our government is run by politicians that always have a keen eye towards the next election and how they can influence it (gain votes) in their parties favor.  2. Politicians want to hang onto their power base (people) as long as they can (don’t cooperate to much or you might lose positions).  3.  Doing what is politically advantageous will always trump doing the right thing.  4.  And consultants (and polls) will always be sought out to support whatever is done to say it was the best thing for the America.

So in reality, at least in the short term, don’t expect any changes soon.     

Comment by Phillip Cram on August 14, 2013 at 1:42pm

An excellent article and I completely agree.  There are virtually no best practices share or realized via interagency.

Comment by Tom Melancon on August 14, 2013 at 12:51pm

Interesting article.  In a recent meeting I attended with Government Leaders in Seattle, the concept of "doing less with less" was being circulated.  It seems like the right time to let the decision makers in Washington DC and the Public know that there are real, tangible losses in services provided by Public Service Agencies when budgets are cut.  If we keep trying to do more with less, it reinforces the idea that budget cuts don't matter.  When the FAA has to close air traffic control terminals in smaller markets because there is no money to staff them, flights are cancelled and regional airlines lose business.  When agencies eliminate travel budgets for their compliance staff, the public is put at risk.  It boils down to an old saying, "you get what you pay for."

Comment by Mark Hammer on August 14, 2013 at 11:22am

I suspect that many of the complaints that citizens have with "big government" stem from the manner in which large organizations, or rather parts of large organizations, can simply lose perspective about what they are doing.  The result is that the actions themselves may be counterproductive (or overly punitive, verging on harassment, if we're talking about regulatory/enforcement agencies), or tenacious turf-clinging escalates costs well beyond what they need to be.  From that angle, any mindset that encourages organizations to be more mindful of their overarching priorities and mission - the doing-what's-right part - is a good thing.

Maybe it's just me, but "do more with less" just sounds like a recipe for a lot of uncompensated overtime.

Comment by Carol Davison on August 14, 2013 at 11:05am

Doing more and less and working harder are both misnomers.  If we could do more with less, eventually we would be able to do everything with nothing.  Instead it is our responsibility to invest in those projects that produce the greatest results for our taxpaying customers and stop doing those that do not.  I'm disappointed that the GAO named its report Government Efficiency and Effectiveness.  I certainly want us to be effective before we both to become efficient.  What if our goal was to demolish "123 Main Street, Springfield Il", but in our drive to be effective instead demolished 122 Main Street? 

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