Power Tools of Government

What are the major levers for driving changes in government agencies? Traditional tools are statutory changes, budgetary controls, and executive orders. But one that seasoned government executives will use to drive change is control over delegations of authority.

A recent report by the Partnership for Public Service on how several federal agencies created shared service centers for mission support functions — such at IT, personnel, and contracting — offered advice on how to undertake such an initiative. The report recommended the use of incentives, agreement on common goals, and clearly defined roles.

But only when you talk with some of the leaders involved do you get a real sense of what they did to get it done: How did they create incentives? How did they get agreement and clearly defined roles? It turns out they used a little-discussed “power tool” – their control over delegations of authority.

What is a “Delegation of Authority?” A delegation of authority is the formal assignment of certain responsibilities along with the necessary authority by one agency to another, such as when OMB delegates authority to agencies consistent with statutory authority to do so; a delegation can also involve transferring authorities from a superior to his subordinate managers. This latter case can be a key tool for improving agency management while retaining accountability; as one academic notes: “Delegation does not mean surrender of authority by the higher level manager. It only means transfer of certain responsibilities to subordinates and giving them the necessary authority, which is necessary to discharge the responsibility properly.”

For example, here is the legal authority for the formal delegation of personnel management authority in the U.S. Code:

“(1) the President may delegate, in whole or in part, authority for personnel management functions, including authority for competitive examinations, to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management; and

(2) the Director may delegate, in whole or in part, any function vested in or delegated to the Director . . . to the heads of agencies in the executive branch and other agencies employing persons in the competitive service.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is one of the few agencies where an inventory of the delegations of authority is readily available.

How Do Leaders Use This Authority? Many organizational units in departments and agencies operate relatively autonomously, and they treasure their independence. This independence to act is often derived from one or more delegations of authority from the agency head or departmental secretary. Oftentimes, these delegations evolved and expanded incrementally over a period of years. And oftentimes, there is no central inventory of even what authorities have been delegated – and the units that received them rarely advertise them to new bosses outside their unit!

However, in two of the case studies in the Partnership’s report on the creation of shared services, leveraging the use of delegations of authority was key to creating an incentive for independent agencies to participate, and served as the focal point for agreeing on common goals and clearly defined roles in a shared services environment.

Office of Environmental Management in the Department of Energy. The first case was in the Department of Energy. In the early 2000s, the then-head of the Office of Environmental Management, Jessie Roberson, was concerned that the cleanup of nuclear waste was moving too slowly. A review showed that internal business processes were fragmented and not structured to be effective or efficient. To address this, she decided to create a Consolidated Business Center that merged multiple support activities – personnel, finance, contract management, etc. – into a single unit to serve mission components across the Office. The Center would also integrate a series of mission functions, such as nuclear waste cleanup and environmental management, as well.

However, the field offices had a tradition of relative autonomy and had created their own, separate business support functions, which reinforced the fragmentation she found. In order to spark a discussion of how they might better work together and share resources, she withdrew most delegated authorities from the field. Once these authorities were clarified and better aligned, she then selectively re-delegated them with clearer roles and responsibilities.

Management Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. The second case was in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Former undersecretary for management, Rafael Borras, says that when he arrived in 2010 he found a balkanized organization with “a jumble of disparate cultures, staffs, and operating procedures.” According to the Partnership report, “Assessments found duplicative IT systems, weak procurement oversight and stove-piped decision-making, among other problems.”

In order to begin unifying these mission support functions, he tactically focused on revisions to delegations of authority (e.g., the roles of the departmental chief financial officer (CFO) vs. counterparts in the bureaus, and their spans of control). For example, the bureaus could not hire their own CFOs without concurrence of the departmental CFO.

However, Borras did not have the authority to grant or deny delegations of authority. But to create the incentive to engage in meaningful interactions to unify functions of the mission support and operational components (e.g., the chief information officer, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, etc.), he sought the support of Secretary Janet Napolitano. She changed the way delegations of authority were approved in DHS – all requests for delegation had to be reviewed and approved by his office before they could be signed off by the Secretary—so they could not sneak end runs around him.

His goal was to create common enterprise-wide functions, such as a common email system for the department, which not only saved money but also improved the operational effectiveness of the Department. But to bring together the stakeholders took a lot of effort – with the delegation of authority being a strong incentive to participate.

A note of caution: the withdrawal of a delegation of authority is not to be done lightly. It is controversial and can result in confrontations with congressional staff and union supporters of the organizations losing their delegations, so leaders taking this kind of action need to be sure to have strong support from above and clear communication with stakeholders and those affected.

In Your Agency. If there is an effort to create a common approach across organizational units, one step might be to look for an inventory of delegations of authority to determine what has been delegated vs. what authorities are maintained at a higher level. And figure out who has the authority to grant or withdraw these delegations – either formally or informally. This may be your first step in creating the incentives for others to participate in a collaborative effort – such as shared email services — that may benefit your agency or department more broadly.

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of Simon Howden, via FreeDigitalPhotos

IBM Center for The Business of Government

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