Time Is Money

Benjamin Franklin famously said that “time is money.” But does government know how to implement this maxim seriously? Now there is a new study that shows how they can do it!

Last week, President Obama signed a memo directing agencies to modernize their construction permitting and review processes in order to: “advance the goal of cutting aggregate timelines for major infrastructure projects in half, while also improving outcomes for communities and the environment.” Based on pilots and best practices developed over the past year, OMB says the result could be speeding construction projects by months, if not years. For example, the approval process for Baltimore’s Red Line rail transit corridor construction process was sped up by six months using concurrent review processes and other techniques.

New IBM Center Report Targets Time. While the presidential memo targets construction projects, the concepts can be applied to other government processes as well. A new IBM Center report, Fast Government: Accelerating Service Quality While Reducing Cost and Time, edited by IBM managing partner Charles Prow, highlights strategies and tools that reduce the amount of time spent in administrative processes, and along the way, reduce costs. This report, discussed in a Roundtable hosted by the Center this past week, can be a useful guide for federal executives eager to streamline and improve performance in their program areas.

Prow says: “accelerating business processes is arguably the single largest driver of improved mission effectiveness in most government missions.” A good example of this is the speed with which Social Security approves retirement applications as more than 10,000 Baby Boomers retire each day.

While some plea for a reduction in red tape, this may be a wrong emphasis. People in government often see process (i.e., red tape) as safeguards, not barriers. But if government managers focus instead on time as a metric to manage, then the speed becomes another tool to improve program delivery in a way that government managers can address.

As budgets continue to shrink, should government slow down or speed up? The Center report comes down on the side of doing things fast, as a way to make government work better.

Make Time a Key Performance Metric. If managers include time as a key performance metric, they will look differently at their operations, and will be continually challenging employees to find ways to reengineer processes to remove tasks that do not add value to the customer of the service. Former OMB executive Robert Shea notes that several initiatives in the Bush Administration set goals that used time as the driving performance metric, and that this focus changed thinking and behaviors. For example, agencies had previously been required to submit their audited financial statements six months after the end of a fiscal year. But when OMB set a goal of submitting them six weeks after the end of the fiscal year, agencies had to completely rethink their processes, not just speed them up incrementally.

Strategies for Fast Government. Shea observes that an important strategy for cutting time and improving services and quality is to have a high degree of employee engagement. This involves two elements. First, employees need to see that they have the ability to make a difference. This includes having fewer constraints from above on how work gets done, but–as former OMB and White House executive Frank Reeder notes — they must still focus on protecting against risks that can arise with increasing speed. But Prow also notes that it includes: “ensuring employees are provided the skills and capabilities to succeed.” He goes on to say: “the most amazing technology in the world will not reduce cycle times and improve performance if the people . . . do not know how to use the new systems or do not support their adoption.”

Engaging employees means they “must also be invested in understanding the ‘bigger picture.’” Leaders cannot be the only ones with an enterprise view; employees also must be able to “see processes from end-to-end from the perspective of time and value” as well “so they too can see how their team contributes or connects to the efforts of others.”

Tools for Fast Government. In addition to putting the right strategies in place, there are a number of tools that can be used to speed government initiatives. One tool is the use of deadlines. Former chair of the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board Earl Devaney, says that in his more than forty years of government service, the statutory requirement that he create the Board and set up two money-tracking websites within six months was “when I got my first big dose of Fast Government.” He said he met the deadlines, but it was by leveraging cutting-edge technology and analytic techniques that were adapted from the intelligence community. As a result, he was able to track the spending patterns of $840 billion in Recovery Act monies and use predictive techniques to prevent waste and fraud. And even as time went on, his team was able to speed its analyses, reducing the time it took to identify questionable spending from five days to under five hours.

Other technology tools are also making it possible to rethink how government can deliver faster. For example, Nicole Lazzaro, president of XEODesign, a commercial gaming company, sees the use of “serious” gaming as a new approach to more quickly deliver public services. She says that “games break down complex relationships and processes into easy-to-achieve steps.” Using gaming technologies – replete with points and bonuses — can speed the education and engagement of citizens. Examples include “apps for healthy kids” to reduce instances of obesity and Vermontivate, which create community awareness of sustainable environmental approaches in communities in Vermont.

Tom Suder, another commercial sector executive – sees the intersection of mobile technology and open data initiatives can speed both government operations and public services. For example, he notes that when the National Agricultural Statistics Service moved from paper-based surveys to the use of iPads to collect data, they not only sped the release of their data, but also saved $3 million.

Tackling Red Tape. Both strategies and tools for fast government, however, depend on the willingness of leaders to focus on time as a performance metric. Barry Anderson, with the National Governor’s Association, observes that “if you want ‘fast government’ don’t tie their shoelaces.” He says that setting time as a priority means government needs to be willing to rethink existing constraints and processes. While many times procedural constraints – which some call “red tape” — are intended to remove risk from a process or program, it may be appropriate to reconsidered emphases in order to speed delivery. As Devaney noted in reference to his Recovery Board work, this requires a shift in paradigm.

Maybe this new report can help you shift the government’s paradigm — after all, “time is money!”

Graphic Credit: courtesy of Renjith Krishnan via FreeDigitalPhotos

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