Federal Perspective: What a career in and around the federal government looks like

Welcome to a Special Edition of the DorobekINSIDER. Chris Dorobek is currently moderating a panel at Google’s Innovation Nation.

Innovation Nation brings together 200 government CIOs to discuss and debate what the future holds for the work of government employees and to help CIOs transform their agencies with technologies that allow their employees to work smarter towards achieving their mission.

But we didn’t want to leave you hanging. So before he left Chris Dorobek sat down with IBM’s Jonathan Breul.

Breul has been with the IBM Business of Government Center for 10 years. Prior to that he was a senior Advisor to the Deputy Director for Management in the Office of Management and Budget.

Breul is retiring at the end of the month. But before he steps down we wanted to pick his brain. He started off telling Chris Dorobek what he thought was the biggest change he’s seen over his government career.

Biggest Change: “Right now it’s gridlock. The system does not work, the policy process is not working. It wasn’t like that when I started in government,” said Breul.

Federal Pawns: “Some players like the General Services Administration and the Secret Service have made it worse. But, civil servants have the stuff to make the cutbacks, they can bear down and do the right thing. In the end the civil service may look good because they will make the hard decisions. But in the meantime, they are taking it on the chin,” said Breul.

More with Less: “We’re not going to do more with less. That’s over. We’re going to have to do less of something, cease doing some things that are worthwhile. Commercial best practices just won’t be enough,” said Breul.

Role of the CFO: (Breul helped craft the CFO Act in 1990) “It was a major step forward. It cleaned up the books, set internal controls and created audited financial statements. But that’s not enough. From there we need to use that information to make the tough choices. The work of the CFO Act was remedial, now we can to put it use,” said Breul.

Government Performance and Results Act: (in 1993 Breul helped craft the original GPRA) “It was modest but it laid down a set of behaviors that are now yielding some pretty interesting information. OMB now has hard empirical data for program expenditures. It’s a major step forward in tracking performance. But these things take time especially when you consider the size and scope of government,” said Breul.

Technology: “Technology has made these performance changes happen. 20 years ago we used to use a red, yellow and green card system,” said Breul.

Fight at OMB between Management and Budget: “It’s a continual struggle. The management folks aim for some standardization and similarity in policy. But the budget folks need to see it in a program context. What makes sense in one case wouldn’t make sense in another. So there is continual tension there. OMB has to learn and relearn that tension and how to solve it each year,” said Breul.

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Dick Davies

Excellent quotes. They provide wisdom in a few words and reminded me of history we lived through.

Agreeing with Mr. Breul’s assessment of the current situation, I can’t help thinking that the coming changes can be both different and much better.

Joe Abbott - Capricorn

I am not sure I comletely agree with all of these thoughts on government. While I haven’t been around the CIO community, I have seen enough government agencies doing amazing work for the public, in spite of the challenges of tight budgets, cumbersome policy processes, and a strained belief that technology is going to solve the people problems that exist in any government organization. The term “federal pawns” is misleading as it implies the whole agency fits that description when it is actually a few selfish people acting without leaders willing to stop the behavior and reshape the organizational culture. That is risky but I think it is worth it. And I think the employees within those two agencies do not want to be associated with such a title. Although putting the CFO Act and GPRA in place are significant steps toward improving government, there have to be dedicated leaders willing to enforce them, make hard decisions, and still care about the work their employees do for them and the impact of their work on the public (whom we are to be serving). Improving technology convinces people that the government can do more with less (including less time) because it is faster. Not true. Technology alone doesn’t make decisions better. True public servants who are morally strong leaders make good decisions about their people, who in turn do the right thing for the government, for the people. I am off my soapbox now.