Crafting a Research Agenda to Manage a 21st Government

This blog was originally posted by Dan Chenok on the Center for the Business of Government blog.

In order to keep The Center for The Business of Government’s research current, we host occasional roundtable discussions with leaders from the public sector, the academic research community, and across industry; these discussions help to challenge current assumptions about what matters for government today, and to frame new areas for investigation going forward.

Last week, we convened our most recent Roundtable. The event brought together leaders from OMB, GAO, agencies, non-profits, universities, and other government stakeholders.. We discussed several areas in depth, and covered a broader set of topics that will inform the Center’s research agenda for the next several years. We are grateful to those who joined the conversation and shared insights, anecdotes, and recommendations on a host of public management issues facing government.

Coming out of these conversations, the Center plans to release a revised research Announcement for future cycles of grants to authors (the Center issues calls for papers semiannually, and bases the subject matter for these calls on an Announcement that we disseminate broadly — read our current Announcement). We also plan to present a longer report that presents the issues behind this research announcement.

While these upcoming publications will address issues in detail, a few general discussion points from the meeting merit early note:

  • Risk management is a significant issue across all facets of government. Whether the issue is cyber or national security, financial management, the delivery of programs, or any the myriad other public sector activities, government faces risk every day – in a similar manner to how citizens and businesses face risk in the private sector. However, the government leaders lacks an accepted culture and framework to manage, incorporate, and communicate risk, which tends to constrain creativity (why try something new, when if it doesn’t work it will get you in trouble?). Research on good models to incorporate enterprise risk will bring great value to government. Managers also need to learn to distinguish risk from uncertainty, the former of which can be mitigated, and the latter planned against.
  • Innovation models that lead to true transformation are emerging, and would benefit from further study. The advent of innovation agendas in agencies is still new, and the contribution that innovation leaders make to improve mission performance within and across programs has yet to be well measured. Understanding and disseminating the importance of innovation to agencies’ missions will be critical to their success, given the important role of innovation now and in the future; just today, the Administration released a Presidential Executive Order and policy on open data..
  • Agencies would benefit from a better understanding of how CXOs can move from a compliance to a performance mindset. Chief Acquisition, Financial, Information, and Human Capital Officers are all in or past their second decade. Law and policy guide many of their activities, and these requirements often mean that the government investment in their function focuses on compliance. But especially given the scarce resources likely available to government over the next several years, more research on effective practices by CXOs in the public and private sectors to act as true support for achieving improved mission performance would create an important body of knowledge.

Many other subjects were discussed, including continued focus on performance measurement and management; developing and implementing incentivize for government to identify cost-effective programs through analysis and experimentation; understanding the continued importance of leadership in given the fast-changing challenges for government, including models for shared leadership and governance; and moving to a government that reduces bureaucracy and increases speed of action without sacrificing quality or integrity. On the last point, the Center will be releasing a report later in May entitled “Fast Government”, which will lay out a series of essays by leaders and experts on various ways to reduce the time involved in public sector service delivery; more to come on this.

The next several years suggest no shortage of hard problems that can be addressed with the help of sound research that points to actionable recommendations. The Center looks forward to leveraging the input from the Roundtable, and from a broader dialogue with government and its many stakeholders, in supporting research that can meet that challenge.

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