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GovReads! If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government

Back in late September, I was inspired by a great new book called “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.” It’s authored by William D. Eggers and John O’Leary. Eggers is a leading expert on government reform who currently serves as the global director for Deloitte Research and executive director of Deloitte’s Public Leadership Institute. He’s a former appointee to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s Performance Measurement Advisory Commission and the former Project Director for the Texas Performance Review/e-Texas initiative. O’Leary is the executive editor of Better, Faster, Cheaper, and a Research Fellow at the Ash Institute of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has held several leadership positions in Massachusetts state government, including Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Director of the Division of Unemployment Assistance, and Chief Human Resource Officer.

If you happen to be in Washington, DC, next Wednesday, the official National Book Launch is being held from 6-8 p.m. More information on that event is posted here on GovLoop. Stay tuned – we also plan to host a live author chat here on GovLoop in December or January. So pick up the book, take notes and get ready to engage the authors directly.

I caught up with Eggers earlier this week to ask a few questions. Our interview is captured below:

1. Was there a specific event or moment of epiphany that served as the initial spark of this book?

There were really two reasons we decided to write the book. First, we wrote it in anticipation of a new administration that would have a lot on its plate. We wanted to provide a guide for how the incoming administration could avoid some of the mistakes of the recent past and by doing so reclaim our country’s legacy of competence in large undertakings.

Second, believe it or not but very little has actually been written on this important topic. Visit any bookstore. Titles on policy, politics, and how to succeed in business abound. But you won’t find many books that address the real-life challenge of executing in the public sector. Our book aims to fill this gap.

2. Based on my first read of the book (and, yes, I plan to read it again!), my sense is that virtually anyone involved with government would find this book valuable. If you could put this book in the hands of a specific group of people, who would it be?

We’re aiming for a broad audience, including public managers, the political class and general readers of books on politics, public policy and management. To reach this audience we tried to hold down the length of the book and make it entertaining.

To have real impact, the book has to get on the reading list of politicians, legislators and their staffs as well as executives, managers and front line practitioners.

One purpose of the book is to help bridge the divide between those in the political world and career managers in the bureaucracy. As such we certainly hope the book becomes required reading for the Obama administration’s political appointees as well as the members of the Senior Executive Service (SES).

3. What’s your goal in writing the book? What’s the call to action for readers, especially public servants?

This book is about improving government’s ability to meet the big challenges, like health care reform, fixing our schools or tackling climate change.

Of all the challenges facing our nation, the most important of all may be closing the “Results Gap” –the growing gulf between political promises and actual achievements. We won’t close this alarming gap, however, by continuing to play the “blame game.” Instead we need to fix the process of getting big things done. Public servants, working with legislators, have to take the lead in making this happen.

4. Let’s look one year from today. What kinds of projects or initiatives would you like to envision being inspired by the book?

For those who work in the public sector, we hope the book illuminates the systemic challenges of government and serves as a useful guide as they navigate the treacherous terrain on the journey to success.

For political leaders, both elected and appointed, we hope the book provides insights that will help them achieve results on the issues about which you care passionately. A clearer understanding of the perils of implementation may even lead some of them to a greater appreciation for the career officials on the other side of political-bureaucratic divide.

For citizens, we hope this book serves as a reminder that it is voters who ultimately shape the future most of all. Our political leaders take their cue from their electorate. We hope this book opens the eyes of more citizens as to how their government actually works. Better informed citizens can be more discerning voters, more attuned to the challenges of political execution.

5. I think I heard you say in the Harvard Business Review podcast that you reviewed 75 projects to consider for inclusion in the book. How did you narrow down the final projects that appear on its pages?

It wasn’t easy. We literally left entire chapters and many full length case studies on the editing room floor so we could keep the book to a manageable length. In the end we chose projects and stories that we thought would prove the most interesting to readers while also offering important lessons learned.

In addition, our desire to include a mix of historical and current-day cases influenced which stories actually made it into the book.

6. “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon” sparked an earlier blog post in which I recommend that we have a “Twitterfall in Congress.” Of course, you were writing about “Government 2.0” long before it became en vogue over the past 2 years. How do you believe social media will enable government to “get big things done?”

This is such a promising area it could be the subject of a whole book in itself. Policymakers and implementers can use social media to improve every stage of the journey from idea to results. Here are just a few ideas:

• The technologies of Web 2.0 make it easier than ever to tap into the potential of large numbers of “experts”—the customers and workers closest to the problem—to improve the ideation process.

• Simulation, gaming and Second Life technologies can improve the design and implementation stages by allowing policymakers to” war game” how different policy proposals might work—or not work—in the real world before they are adopted.

• Prediction markets can improve policy design and execution by surfacing to the leadership timelines or strategies unlikely to work in practice.

• Real-time Web technologies like Twitter, Yammer and SocialText can dramatically speed the feedback process which in turn can help government agencies “fail small, and fail fast” (which is good) as opposed to failing slowly and at scale (bad).

7. In your opinion, how can GovLoop specifically be a catalyst and platform for achieving great things in government? Do you have any specific recommendations for the GovLoop community?

We hope the many successes profiled in the book inspire GovLoop community members to strive to make government better. At the same time, GovLoopers should heed the cautionary tales of the smart, capable people who have learned the hard way that failure is, indeed, an option.

A huge step forward would be that GovLoop community members would start asking a simple question whenever someone pushes for a particular program or proposal: “How exactly is this going to work in the real world?” If GovLoopers could help legislators and political appointees to better recognize that high hopes alone don’t guarantee results, and that they need to take processes more seriously that would be a big step in the right direction.

8. Anything else you’d like to mention that I may have missed…especially for this target audience?

Those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. We look at many historical examples in the book in order to put our current challenges into context. By doing so we also show that our current problems with execution did not start eight years ago but instead have been building for decades. Learning from history we believe can help get us out of our current predicament.


Additional Resources

More about the book, including press coverage and reviews.

Find the book at Harvard Business Publishing.

Hear a podcast interview with Eggers.

Interact with Eggers on GovLoop.


***By the way: If you would like to share a review or have a book that you would like to see featured on GovReads, please contact [email protected].***

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Bob Gourley

I can’t wait to read this book. It has a great, inspiring title, and Andrew your review puts the piece in good context. Thanks.