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A Results-Oriented Commerce Department?

I’ve long admired Gary Locke for his commitment to results-oriented government. He pioneered new approaches in Washington State both as the chief executive of King County and as governor. But I’d never met him until last week at a Partnership for Public Service event where he summed up his tenure as Commerce Secretary, before departing to China as our new ambassador.

Secretary Locke spoke to a packed audience at the offices of the Partnership for Public Service, where he was introduced by Jeff Zients, the government’s chief performance officer, who said Locke was a good partner in focusing on program execution and strong management, which has borne fruit at the Department of Commerce.

His Leadership Approach

Locke said his basic leadership philosophy is to set “super-high stretch goals” to force people to re-imagine their approach to getting something done. He calls this “creative destruction.” As governor of Washington State, for example, he faced a major budget deficit but focused the debate not on what needed to be cut, but rather he defined a set of ambitious goals and focused the debate on what needed to be funded first, and then focused his cuts on the rest.

According to Jason Miller’s account on Federal News Radio: “This management philosophy starts with developing three broad management improvement priorities — customer service, organization excellence and workforce excellence. . . ” This has to be coupled with a clear sense of mission, which for the Commerce Department, he summed as “help American companies be more innovative at home and more competitive abroad.”

As secretary of the Department of Commerce, he said he focused on those outcomes that he thought were most critical, and what actions were needed to be successful in meeting those outcomes. He re-framed the department’s strategic goals around three themes (economic growth, science and information, and environmental stewardship) and used a Balanced Scorecard approach to monitor progress and drive data-based decision-making.

Highlights of Accomplishments at Commerce

In his introductory remarks, OMB’s Zients decried the lack of attention to success in government and praised Locke for his focus on results. Locke said “this is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” and highlighted a handful of recent successes by the Commerce Department, including:

  • Cost savings initiatives totaling $250 million achieved by re-thinking the way 16 programs were delivered. He also said they saved $142 million via administrative and acquisition reforms, of which $39M was reinvested in improved operations.
  • Customer service improvement via Commerce Connect. He said the department started with a pilot in Michigan in 2009 where they cross-trained Commerce employees to deliver services from other agency programs, and then trained them to deliver services from other agencies such as the Export-Import Bank, Small Business Administration, and state-local services in their localities. This program has been expanded to 16 other regions around the country.
  • How the Economic Development Administration streamlined its grant approval process from 6-7 months to 18 business days.
  • How the Patent and Trademark Office streamlined the patent approval process, whittling down a backlog of 760,000 pending applications. It is in the process of moving the approval time from 38 months to 28 months, with a target of 18 months approval. It is also proposing an “express service” of 12 months, if approved by Congress.
  • When he took office, the 2010 Census was rated by GAO as one of the programs “most likely to fail,” but in the end, it was accurate, timely, and 25 percent under budget – returning $1.9 billion in unused appropriations to the Treasury.

He said the approach he used in managing these kinds of projects was to start by answering the question: “how do we define success, and how do we measure it?” He says that once this is done, then the remaining focus is on strategy and priority-setting.

The Importance of Focusing on Employees

According to Charles Clark of Government Executive’s account of the forum, Locke said employees “can’t be afraid to take risks . . They must know they will never be hung out to dry if they fall short of their goal as long as they’ve acted in good faith and ethically.” Locke said that if people are afraid of failure, they won’t strive to meet high goals. He also observed that it is essential to involve line-employees in any major initiative. He says they need to have ownership, pride, and feel accountable for results.

What Happens Next?

The sustainability of management reform has always been a challenge. . . . As Locke leaves, what will become of his priorities and management improvement efforts at Commerce? John Bryson, a utility executive, has been nominated to replace him but 44 Republican senators say they will oppose him, pending votes on unrelated matters. Becky Blank, who has been the acting deputy secretary of the department since her predecessor resigned last summer, will likely be the acting secretary in the interim. The president has nominated Terry Garcia as deputy secretary (and as the department’s chief operating officer), but his nomination is also pending.

Gaps in leadership can be dangerous for the survival of management reforms. . . . Will the impending reorganization of trade and export functions derail them? Will the incoming new secretary create a different set of priorities and start over? Will a prolonged interim without top leadership cause them to die of neglect?

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

This is an outstanding write-up, John. Would love to read an auto-bio by Locke to learn more about his management and leadership philosophy. I especially liked this part:

According to Charles Clark of Government Executive’s account of the forum, Locke said employees “can’t be afraid to take risks . . They must know they will never be hung out to dry if they fall short of their goal as long as they’ve acted in good faith and ethically.” Locke said that if people are afraid of failure, they won’t strive to meet high goals. He also observed that it is essential to involve line-employees in any major initiative. He says they need to have ownership, pride, and feel accountable for results.

Also, it would be interesting to see if there was a corresponding increase in Commerce agency rankings on the Partnership’s “Best Places to Work” survey during Locke’s tenure.

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Profile Photo John Kamensky

Hi Andrew – Good question about Commerce’s ranking. Commerce ranked 13th in the 2010 Best Places to Work survey, with a score of 68 . . . it has steadily increased its overall score since 2003 by a couple points a year, so increases can’t be solely attributed to Sec. Locke’s philosophy. But it can’t hurt!

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Profile Photo Alicia Mazzara

Agreed, the point about employees being able to take risks is hugely important. You cannot people to go the extra mile if they don’t feel supported by management.

I don’t know what a change in leadership means for these reforms. It depends on who takes over and what their priorities are. That said, a prolonged interim can really kill the momentum behind any new initiative; no one wants to invest time and effort in case the next leader changes everything. I would imagine it’s very frustrating for employees to have to wait while Congress bickers over the nominees.

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Profile Photo John Kamensky

Hi Alicia – Congress isn’t bickering over the nominees (I don’t think there’s any disagreement over their qualifications) — they’re holding the vote on nominees hostage over the passage of three free-trade agreements . . . A recent WashPost article suggests that most pending nominees might not get a chance for consideration until August.

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Profile Photo Kera Bartlett

Bravo to Amb. Locke for his work at Commerce. “Failing Fast” – as we like to term it at The Clearing – and learning quickly from one’s successes and failures goes so far in moving major change efforts forward. I look forward into these successes more closely, thanks for sharing.

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Profile Photo John Kamensky

The Clearing? Is that something like “The Shining??” Hopefully not as scarey, but the notion of “failing fast” seems to be applied more effectively in the private sector than in government. The focus on clarity (which your website advocates), though, is something that probably could make a big difference.

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Profile Photo Kera Bartlett

Haha, no, it’s not in reference to the horror movie from 2004 (or any movie or book for that matter). We’re a management consulting firm that works with Change Agents in government and corporate sectors to get clear on their problem so possibility can emerge. Often times that can be characterized as creating a “Clearing.”

I agree that failing fast is usually reserved for the private sector or specifically prototyping, but can have applications in any sector. Indeed clarity, as well as shared perspectives, shared intent and shared outcomes among a team, are essential to successful change efforts.

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Profile Photo Daniel Daughtry-Weiss

Amen Andrew! Risk-aversion is crippling to any efforts in results-oriented management. And line-employee engagement is critical to getting things done! These things go hand in hand.

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Profile Photo Carol Davison

We in Commerce’s O/S OHRM are working on an OHRM Excellence Initiative. I previously worked on CommerceConnect with two great leaders. You know the kind that add value to what you are doing even though they aren’t in your field, listen, and implement what you suggest? I wonder how much more effective they are in their areas of expertise? They motivated me to fly out west and work six days weeks to get the job done. They did. The Exectutive Director was called to the White House and asked how he completed so much, so quickly.

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