A Cliffside View of Government Oversight

Having mused over our journal’s fall 2010 forum (The Public Manager, presently in layout) on lessons learned from Katrina and the more recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – it’s hard not to get sick over government’s failure to see in advance that something was terribly wrong, about to go over the cliff. Within the past several months, I’ve read in the morning newspapers articles like:

· “$8.7 billion in Iraqi cash not traceable” – the subtext being “An audit finds the Pentagon cannot account for the money meant for reconstruction”

· “FBI director says he doesn’t know the extent of cheating” – the subtext being “(does) …the FBI know its own rules for conducting surveillance on Americans?”

· “On Day 100, lessons learned from the (BP) spill” – one of the biggest being “Regulators shouldn’t sleep with industry”

· “Offshore drilling to require stricter environmental scrutiny…ending a practice in which government regulators essentially rubber-stamped potentially hazardous deepwater projects…”

· “(US) Coast Guard OK’d frequent use of dispersants, reports indicate” – subtext being despite the Obama administration’s direction and the EPA’s urging to restrict use of dispersants to ‘rare cases’ upon appeal, “…the approval process (administered by the Coast Guard) appears to be somewhat pro forma…”

· “Feds urged work on pipeline in Mich. Spill” – the subtext being despite urging from the US Department of Transportation’s pipeline safety agency (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) that the Canadian company operating the system check for corrosion problems in the 1900-mile network, the work wasn’t done and an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil escaped into the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan.

Compared to these “downers,” I also read one article that actually caught public managers getting their oversight function right. Such as “Area beaches mostly clear of pollutants, testing shows;” – the subtext being “Palm Beach County (FL) exceeded standards for two types of harmful bacteria…” Yea, we’re testing and disclosing our research findings timely!!

As someone who spent virtually all his government career in federal Executive Branch agencies – mostly in program operations – my view of oversight responsibility is that it starts at the front lines. That is, with organizations having delegated authority for implementing programs and related “legislative and appropriated authorities.” Yes, even those programs not run directly by career federal civil servants, but through states and localities, nonprofit grantees, and private sector contractors. Alongside these line organizations (mainly the cabinet departments and their sub-cabinet off-shoots, such as FEMA, IRS, the SEC, and the Federal Reserve, for example), are organizations that serve the President, Department Heads, and the Congress in their own oversight of our front-line overseers (e.g., OMB, OIGs, GAO, etc.).

Moreover, these same line organizations are stewards of the public trust – protecting our nation’s resources, assets and the unique missions embedded in their organizations’ charters. For example, the US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service; the Department of Commerce’s National Weather Service, Bureau of the Census, National Institute of Standards & Technology and Patent & Trade Office; the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and Food & Nutrition Service; the Department of Health & Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and the Food & Drug Administration; to name but a few at the federal level that make the local newspapers and, on occasion, 60 Minutes whenever something goes awry.

So…we should have lots to talk about on the matter of oversight and stewardship – hopefully with a focus on systems in place and organizational cultures prepared to keep things from going awry. Sort of a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ subtext, you might say. All of this is good news if what we’re after is an open dialogue on the full range of oversight and stewardship responsibilities exercised at every level of government. We’ll do our part by having more on the theme of “Best Practices in Oversight, Stewardship and Accountability” in the winter issue of The Public Manager, on our Web site (www.thepublicmanager.org) and in events through the remainder of 2010 and into 2011.

In the meantime. let us hear from you on what your organization (federal, state or local) is doing to raise the bar on its oversight and stewardship performance to keep its charges from going over the cliff.

Warren Master, President & Editor-in-Chief, The Public Manager

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Warren…as always, well-researched and real examples.

For you, how does the Open Government Directive tie into better stewardship? Do you think frontline government will perform more effectively if they are asked to work in a more transparent and collaborative environment?

Warren Master

Thanks for the feedback, Andy. Yes, I think any sustained movement in the direction of greater transparency and openness will help reinforce improved stewardship and oversight. This assumes, of course, that the American public and other stakeholders become better informed on these matters and come to expect more from their public servants and elected officials. However, unless and until government organizations build identifiable stewardship and oversight responsibilties into their strategic plans, training initiatives, and performance management systems – with relevant metrics to assure high quality – I’m afraid we can expect to see more sub-par ethical behavior. Curiously, when I think back to my entry into federal service as a GS-11 in 1970 and through most of my public service career as a SESer through the ’80s and ’90’s, I recall lots of reinforcement of these norms, albeit not embedded in formal agency plans. I guess my optimism on this matter will grow if I see tangible evidence that high performance is rewarded and failure is dealt with accordingly.

Gary Berg-Cross

Sometimes I think about current governance and oversight as a “legacy system”. Well of course it is a legacy sysgtem, but I think of it in the sense of an IT legacy system that people have been working hard to keep goina and are trying to path and/or replace. As a legacy current governance value and yet significantly resist modification and evolution to meet new and constantly changing government requirements.

As with legacy IT, the main problem is not that the necessary expertise does not exist, but rather, that it is hard for managers and organization to agree on and master all the techniques needed.
The diversity of the problem domain poses problems for older management approaches and perhaps an enterprise approach is needed..

Gary Berg-Cross


Here are a few ideas on how an enterprise governance approach might avoid ” legacy evolutionary dead ends.” We need to think of this as a bit of a metaphoric analogy beteen IT systems and management systems.
In IT legacies have occured because the methodologies weren’t sophisiticated.. We need to leveage the existing functionality keeping lmodules of existing legacy function when you can and building new modules when you can’t. Both modules must be able to respond to new “requirements” and evolve and not be a dead end. Often the older (IT) function is a relatively coarse activity and so we might keep it, at lest for a while, s we develop much more refined processes to serve the larger needs.

So by analogy we need to develop more sophisticated methods to go into places where agencies are having trouble (your cliffside examples) and decide what is functioning well enough to be kept and what new modules of management need to be developed and how to transition in a principled way between viable states of the enterprise.

The theory of the enterprise systems approaches recognizes the need to balance what can be done with the as-is situation to a target vision and move towards the fututre in incremental steps that are managable to the enterprise.

Warren Master

Keep drilling down, Gary. So…take what used to be the Mineral Management Service that was literally in bed with BP et al and seemed to give them a pass at virtually every turn – pretty much forgetting any of the basic principles that form the bedrock of ethical governance. How then does one sort out “what is functioning well enough to be kept and what new modules of management need to be developed and how to transition in a principled way between viable states of the enterprise?”

Mark S. Delligatti

One of the things that shocked me most about the oil spill was the apparent lack of a sense of mission by the regulators. My agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, instills, from day one, a sense of mission, in its staff. I believe that, in part, this is a self-perpetuating process because what we do is so important and we know both the healty and safety consequences to the American people and the consequences to energy independence and security that come from anything less than a devotion to safety, security and protection of the environment. NRC is an agency with very few political appointees (basically, the 5 Commissioners). The staff is professional, dedicated, and tends to stay with the agency for a long time. Perhaps others can learn from our experience.

Warren Master

Is there formal training and related on-boarding activities aimed at instilling these shared values into the NRC workforce? And how is it sustained – particularly with all the political pressure, even from outside the agency?

Mark S. Delligatti

There are a pair of videos on the agency and its values that are presented during on-boarding. I believe that “the NRC Values” video is available on our public website. The more significant source of the sustained aculturation, I believe, comes from the senior staff and from management. There is a remarkable belief in and adherence to the agency’s mission. I think that the political pressure has yet to trump the mission to protect public health and safety and the environment and ensure the security when nuclear materials are being used for civilian activities. Whether its licensing reactors or inspecting medical facilities, or out at a construction site, checking the transportation security of a portable gauge, the NRC staff takes this mission seriously. I think the reason that NRC was found to be the “best place to work” in the Federal government, among larger agencies, is that there is a sense of responsibility among the staff that is recognized and rewarded by the management.

Warren Master

Great site and webcast, Mark. I’ll link all of this to The Public Manager, ASTD & GovLoop as well. Also, I’ll reach out to the public information office contact you gave me earlier. this would fit in well with the 1-day workshop we’re planningon this topic as part of ASPA 2011 annual conference in Baltimore next March. BTW, the internal URL didin’t work for me. I went to the NRC Web site (http://www.nrc.gov) and cursored down to Values. Very impressive AND encouraging!!

Gary Berg-Cross

Mark makes a good point about “what is functioning well enough to be kept and what new modules of management need to be developed?” that could be applied to the old Mineral Management Service MMS was a siloed non-transparent environment, characterized by political influence

He points to the NRC with very few political appointees (basically, the 5 Commissioners) and a professional, dedicated staff that tends to stay with the agency for a long time. So reducing the political role and and enabling a view into some of the functioning seems to be a module needed.

Warren Master

I agree. I wonder if anyone has ever constructed a flexible, optimal model (a principle-driven template) for a more normative government organization. And I wonder if anything like this was employed in creating the successor organization (and organization culture) to the MMS. In fact, we could look at other recent agency overhauls to see how these “transformations” played out (e.g., the Department of Homeland Security, FAA, etc.).

Gary Berg-Cross

One thought on a “flexible, optimal model (a principle-driven template) for a more normative government organization” is Christopher Alexander’s ideas of Design Patterns. They are modular templates described by language to deal with problems such as “Inability to balance individual, group, societal, and ecological needs. ”

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.

The original application was architecture for buildings and cities, but it swiftly became popular in IT and since then has spread to other applications such as health care solutions that are resilient, adaptable, and durable and can be reused.

Warren Master

We’ll keep probing until we find government organizations that have put someting like this in play. More later. Cheers – Warren

Paul Wohlleben

While government has great difficulty implementing technology successfully, I sense we are on the front-edge of a major movement to use technology more effectively in the business of government regulation. I see a move from the current “reactive” style of regulation to a “proactive” style, where technology is used real time to prevent crises, like the financial crisis or the BP spill, from happening. Many of the monitoring and networking technologies exist to do this today. It would certainly take better and more coordinated technology implementation, across organizational boundaries, to put the technology in place, and better data quality (see the link to my article on this). But most importantly, it would require public support for either close govt oversight of industry self-regulation or a major shift in how govt carries out its regulatory responsibilities, which would be much more intrusive. I think this is a when not if question – when will the citizenry be comfortable with more govt real-time involvement in their lives and livelihood?


Warren Master

Good piece, Paul. With more than 40 years of diverse public sector experiences, I can appreciate the significant contribution new technologies and increased transparency offer public managers – in implementing law and regulation, monitoring and evaluating programs, and weighing in on needed reforms. That said, I suspect – based on the same 40-year experience – that much of our current oversight & stewardship challenge can be readily addressed with information we already have at hand. Knowing that there are indeed agencies that have exemplary oversight track records and internal workforce values – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes to mind (http://www.nrc.gov) -perhaps we can raise the bar simply by benchmarking and comparing government organizations by dint of how they systematically exercise their oversight role. But I agree, coming up with KM strategies to buttress these efforts can only help.

Gary Berg-Cross

An earlier Post on “Why is change so difficult in government” discussed some relevant points. Some saw change coming through new tools and systems like KM. Others pointed out that without underlying culture change, which is a common challenge for large organizations you may not get irreversible improvement. As they said it is also easier to buy new systems than to really embrace the kind of organizational change such as embracing work on the difficult, visible areas.

Warren Master

It’s a little like planning and executing a successful strategy for a game of chess – which in ancient India was based on strategy and tactics on the battlefield.