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Agencies Can’t Climb Everest Alone

12311b0Mount Everest is the highest mountain on earth. The Himalayan peak’ is more than 29,000 feet above sea level. And only a few more than 5,000 intrepid climbers have ever reached the top. Those who have reached the summit have done so with the help of trusty guides and with the insights of climbers of the past. Without the help, a climb to the summit would certainly be fatal.

Climbers need the help of their forefathers or else they would be literally climbing without a net.

The same is true in government. Today’s challenges are more universal than one particular agency’s mission. The Environmental Protection Agency does not protect the nation’s waterways without the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department to name a few.

But the government is still thinking in a siloed approach where challenges and solutions rarely transcend agency borders. Chris Mihm, Managing Director strategic Issues, Government Accountability Office, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER that the philosophy needs to change.

“We’re in an era where no one program, or one agency, or even one level of government can be successful in addressing the complex cross sector problems,” noted Mihm.

To help facilitate these cross-agency goals, OMB created strategic objective reviews as part of their implementation of the GPRA Modernization Act. “So far the results have been very favorable. These reviews are going to be annual. The first review was held last this year.”

The reviews bring together audit, performance, research and evaluation information to evaluate how are we doing and what do we need to do differently in order to better achieve positive outcomes. The reasons for the reviews are clear to Mihm, “You can look at any aspect of the Federal Personnel System and discover it doesn’t work for employees. The system doesn’t work for managers. In the recruitment process the system doesn’t work for applicants. It just doesn’t work.”

Aligned with the reviews, the government also rolled out CAP goals – across agency priority goals. “Very recently, the President announced a White House leadership development program that’s going to be bringing some very skilled people into government to work on the CAP goals,” said Mihm.

Employee Engagement is Down

For the third year in a row the survey of federal employees (EVS) showed a drop in employee engagement. “Public confidence in government isn’t just about to turn the corner and we’ll all be loved again. We are beginning to see in the Employee Viewpoint Survey data that agencies are really taking a hit. Take the Department of Homeland Security for example. There engagement numbers continue to go down. That’s not good for people that work at DHS and it’s not good for the citizens either,” said Mihm. “We all need DHS to continue to be really focused on executing the mission. Employees that aren’t engaged, with low morale, or employees that don’t feel appreciated, they can’t be at peak mission performance. That’s a big concern all around.”

One of the reasons for the lowered engagement numbers is the nature of government work is shifting. “We need to figure out how do we get things to work. Why do we have breakdowns? Why are these major issues at the VA or the Secret Service?” noted Mihm. “We give out hundreds of billions of dollars each year in grants to state and local governments and hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts. We need to look at challenges in a micro sense – break them down. For example, let’s look in a concrete sense at the range of strategies that worked and which ones didn’t. Then let’s validate the process and scale it.”

Open Data Solution

Additionally, the public still does not fully understand how the government works. “We need greater citizen transparency and understanding. It will be very important next year to effectively implement the Data Act,” said Mihm. “The Data Act should begin to give citizens much greater transparency into the range of government spending. This is really important. We can’t have another USA spending problem on our hands.”

And it’s not just the public who could benefit from open data. “Agencies are getting pressured to do shared services. But if you don’t have a good understanding of how much your services are costing you versus how much the services are costing your colleagues in other agencies, you can’t make intelligent decisions,” said Mihm. “The data gives managers the tools and the information they need in order to effectively manage.”

The IRS is using data and customer feedback to change the way they operate. “The IRS has used technology, not just on the tax return side of it, but on the customer service side too. They are working on improving their website to make it more effective and interactive so people can get more information about their personal tax situations,” said Mihm. “There are plenty of opportunities to better use technology to improve the citizen experience with government.”

Don Kettle, the former dean at the University of Maryland, wrote a book several years ago, The Next Government in the United States. The basic thesis is the US has a set of political and administrative, management issues in government, that are not appropriate and do not match the complexity the types of issues that we’re dealing with. And occasionally they end up with horrific consequences – whether it be a 9/11 or a Hurricane Katrina. “We’re capable of learning as the response to Super Storm Sandy showed. But on both big and small issues, we’ve got to be willing to change our management thinking and our approaches in our institutions, to better align with and support the types of issues that we’re asking government to confront,” said Mihm.

*Photo credit Ejercito de Chile

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