Regain Public Trust: Solve Social Problems

Opinions of the federal government are at an all-time low. With only 17% of Americans holding a positive view of the work being done in Washington, we finally unseated the oil and gas industry for last-place on Gallup’s annual opinion rankings.

And to be honest, it’s hard to blame them. Our federal government is jam-packed with expensive programs with worthy goals, staffed by caring, smart people—that year-after-year generate little to no real results.

And it’s not just the public’s perception. According to OPM’s 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 54 percent of federal government employees believe that their agency or department has a results-oriented performance culture.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can win back support from the public and reinvigorate the sense of purpose among federal employees—but we’re going to need to rethink our approaches to social programs.

Right now, spending on most federal programs is dictated by two criteria: Can I spend it fast enough and does it fit with the theme my department or the administration is currently promoting.

On the first count, all too often in a large bureaucracy the metric of success for staff performance is our ability to spend our pot of program money within a certain timeframe. “Get it out the door!” becomes the common rallying call towards the end of the fiscal year. As a result, one of the first filters we end up applying to project opportunities is how easily we can move the money.

The second count of trend-chasing seems to also be endemic to our system. If the department’s theme that month is supporting training for small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs, then we scour our portfolios for those opportunities to fund. The end goal of that strategy is for the administrator or secretary to be able to include the work in their talking points at a public event later that month.

Imagine, though, if a department incentivized staff to spend program money in a different way. Imagine if it set big, audacious goals—like USAID reducing maternal and child mortality by 10 percent over the next five years—and then offered to fund whomever could deliver them. Imagine evaluating proposals based entirely on their ability to make a contribution towards that goal and the evidence demonstrating that those results are achievable.

But this requires a very bold step for federal agencies and departments—to put a stake in the ground for what value they really want to create and to hold everyone accountable for creating it.

We are witnessing some subtle movements in this direction through President Obama’s signing of the GPRA Modernization Act and the establishment of cross-agency goals by the Administration. But how can these policy shifts trickle down to the staff level and begin to influence funding decisions?

The start would be to develop a department-wide Results Framework or Impact Framework. The Framework outlines the links between the social impact (long-term change) that the department aims to accomplish and the outcomes (intermediate/near-team change) necessary to get there. The outcomes and impact are typically based on extensive interviews with department stakeholders and target beneficiaries to understand what they need and value, review of relevant research and evaluations, and benchmarking against similar organizations.

The process of developing the Framework is as important as the actual Framework itself, because it forces staff to take a cold hard look at their programs and objectives and have an open and honest discussion about what’s working—and what isn’t.

As I’ve seen in much of my client work with both the public and nonprofit sectors, and during my time as a federal government employee, refocusing programs in a bold way like this is as much about changing hearts and minds as it is about changing strategy. Developing the Framework is critical to making sure people throughout the department are brought into the process, and not run over by it.

At the end of the process, the department has a clearer understanding of how they will create social value, and a roadmap for assessing progress towards those goals. The Framework can be an incredibly powerful tool for prioritizing funding decisions. It enables managers to report at the end of the year how much value they created with their resources, rather than just how much money they pushed out the door.

The results of implementing this Impact Frameworks across the federal government could be transformative. We could finally start effectively investing in and solving some of the intractable social problems that we’ve been chipping away at for decades.

And in the process, we could reinvigorate federal government service and regain the trust of the American people.

Avery Ouellette is the director of the government practice at Mission Measurement, a consulting firm that helps its clients to create value through social change. She is a former civil servant at USAID. Follow Avery on Twitter: @MissionMeasure.

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Jo Youngblood

I like the argument but it’s too evidence based. Sometimes the greatest rewards come with the greatest risks and sure there is the possibility that you’re shooting yourself in the foot, but that’s what innovation means – risk. Also, I think you have to talk into account the qualitative aspect of service and not just the quantitative aspect. I can process 100 people through a line in 2 hours, but that doesn’t mean they’re all happy with the service they received even if I did my job properly. So there’s something to customer service and public satisfaction that is more than just numbers but a sense of connection.