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Making Bureaucracy Better

Bureaucracy – it’s not a word that inspires a whole lot of positive feelings these days. To the public, it can symbolize government inefficiency and unresponsiveness. To the federal worker, it often represents a rigid structure that stifles their agency’s agility.

Bureaucracy can be overwhelming, even painful, but it doesn’t have to be. And for all of its bad press, bureaucracy can help maintain order and streamline organizational operations – it just has to be done right.

Organizational architect David Paschane believes that government agencies have the power to transform their bureaucratic structure for the better, and he contends that the public is already seeing it at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In an interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, Paschane discussed major organizational changes at the VA and how other government agencies can apply this model to fundamentally transform the way they work in three simple steps.

By its nature, bureaucracy is rigid. “It’s a controlling structure, that’s what it does,” Paschane said. “We like structure to be normalized. We like it to be stable and predictable, so we as for a structure that is as firm and solid as possible.” While structure can streamline productivity, it can also become too embedded in an agency’s practice and culture, making it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances.

Many government agencies find themselves encumbered by bureaucracy rather than aided by it. Over the past few years, scandals at the VA have demonstrated its desperate need to transform its organizational structure. Despite this need, Paschane explained, “The VA’s been around so long and has so much embedded rigidity that it’s hard to change.” Faced with a challenge nearly every agency struggles with, VA Secretary Bob McDonald decided it was time for a transformation.

To make meaningful changes, “You have to create opportunity, you have to clarify the principle, and you have to coordinate the discipline,” Paschane said. He argued that with the MyVA Initiative, VA Secretary McDonald has done just that.

MyVA is an initiative aimed at integrating the agency’s organizational maps into a single framework that will both improve veterans’ access to health information and help employees understand what strategies work and what ones don’t. Though still in its early stages, Paschane argued that MyVA’s approach is already fundamentally transforming the agency for the better.

By gathering metrics on service efficiency and employee engagement, MyVA has given the agency’s employees “every opportunity to learn what were the factors causing the outcomes,” Paschane said, “That really did change the opportunity.”

This program has also clarified the VA’s principle goals and means to achieve those goals. With the data gathered from MyVA, “[The VA] has started to streamline and adapt the analytics that are going to mean something to employees,” Paschane explained. This data outlines what employees should learn, how they can engage more deeply and the strategies that they can adopt to improve their performance.

Increasing opportunities to learn and clarifying principles are two important steps to transforming bureaucratic structure; however, Paschane contended that the most integral part of any transformation is coordinating these disciplines. “You have to look at the multiple causes, the multiple levels of outcome,” he said. Using the data gathered through MyVA to inform employee evaluations and leadership approaches, Paschane argued that the VA is successfully coordinating their principles with opportunities.

How can others replicate the MyVA model to improve performance? According to Paschane, every agency’s structure is comprised of communication, workforce and policies. If leaders can address each of these elements of the bureaucratic structure, they can transform the way their agency operates. Coordinating learning opportunities with principles based on data can help every agency communicate better and adapt more quickly to changing situations.

When trying to truly change bureaucratic structure, “You’re trying to look at change in terms of the rigor that fits the realities of the organization. There will always be parts of the organization that are begging for change…[communication] is the way that you get through that structure,” he said.

MyVA is mitigating the VA’s external and internal bureaucratic rigidity by centralizing information for veterans to access and coordinating data-driven principles and employee learning opportunities. The positive impact on the VA is already apparent, and it lends a model that others can apply to themselves. Paschane concluded that if leaders can “get the rigor to fit the realities,” then agencies could have a long-lasting positive impact on the federal bureaucracy.

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Betty Meyer

In following the conversation about the MyVA, I am struck by the language about getting veterans the information and service they need. Ultimately, public bureaucracies falter when they lose sight of the fact that there is some public they are there to serve. Whether it is veterans, elderly, tax payers, school children or drivers on roads, we exist to serve someone and, if that isn’t what we think about each morning, we need to re-focus. Local government has it easier in this regard as those we serve show up at our place of work regularly. Leaders need to help their agency keep that focus. The VA is transforming because everyone now is focusing on serving veterans. The metrics help keep that focus but any bureaucracy can change if leaders say “it is about our customers.”

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Christian Bason

Couldn’t agree more. (Re)focusing on the key outcomes and then (re)designing all organisational activities around them.

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Scott

Fantastic!!! I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum in local government. The principles here touched a nerve in both cases. Nice job!

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