From the fiscal cliff to the current sequester, government agencies are operating in a period of fiscal uncertainly. At best agencies will have flat year-on-year budgets, barely keeping up with the rate of inflation. At worst agencies will face deep budget cuts. While many agencies are already reducing waste, cutting back on training, and increasing efficiencies, this new environment of constrained budgets and stricter congressional oversight will require agencies to provide real proof of ROI.
In a new Economist Intelligence Unit research report, Proving value in an age of austerity: A new normal for US government programmes, they discuss three steps federal agencies need to accomplish to prove value and accommodate this new environment.
Demonstrating value is essential to keeping your budget. As the report suggests, the days of Congress approving large, multi-year programs on the promise of ROI are long gone. According to Chris Mihm, Managing Director for Strategic Issues, GAO, “agencies will have to be more able and willing to identify the savings and productivity improvements they produce with a specific investment.” To do this, he urges agencies to not over-promise potential savings or exaggerate improvements seen from a project. By reporting on the real data, documenting actual productivity, and presenting the performance improvements that tell “the proper story,” agencies will be able to show tangible improvements to Congress, and most likely maintain their current level of funding.
Demonstrating value may not be as easy it sounds. As Jon Desenberg, Senior Policy Director for The Performance Institute notes, “demonstrating return on investment requires more than sending reaps of spreadsheets and numbers to Congress.” Much like an employee would approach his boss for a promotion, agencies will need to prove value in numbers, show improvement over time, and articulate their ROI clearly and accurately. It may take more preparation than in years past, but it will be worth it in the end.
Doing More with Less: The Role of Innovation
How many times have we heard the phrase, “government agencies need to do more with less?” Although over-used, it remains true, especially in today’s environment. Facing a bleak future of flat or reduced funding, agencies need to find new ways to increase efficiencies and reduce costs from their current budgets. To do this, agencies will need to get creative in their thinking and be comfortable making the tough decisions of which projects to cut and which to save.
An example of an agency already doing this is NASA. Riding the ups and downs of the fiscal uncertainty rollercoaster and experiencing multiple cuts to popular programs, NASA is still “trying to ensure that the agency can maintain the health of its mission, which includes developing multi-generational rocket programmes.” Internally, this requires new thinking, collaboration, and most importantly, innovation from all levels of the agency. NASA has implemented traditional cost saving measures including standardizing spending on travel and reducing the number of conferences employees can attend. In addition, the review process of projects has drastically changed and they no longer say, “yes” to projects they can’t realistically pay for. Priorities are reviewed every budget cycle, officials go through a review process to see what programs can be trimmed, and programs are reviewed at key points in their cycle to ensure they are on target and will deliver a positive ROI. Although many of these changes sound small, they can add up to big cost savings in the end.
Producing Incremental Value
For years, government agencies have undertaken ambitious, multi-year projects often without a step-by-step project plan or documented ROI. This inevitably led to waste, a frustrated Congress, and a confused public. Now, government agencies must show their programs will achieve value from the very first stage of development.
By shelving expensive, multi-year IT programs for smaller projects that can show incremental value, agencies can prove to Congress real ROI. This makes it more likely that the agencies will receive continued funding and the projects can continue. Another benefit is that by breaking large projects into smaller ones, agencies can ensure that each phase works properly and will deliver the expected ROI before advancing to the next phase. If progress is not delivered, that project can be canceled or put on hold, without much lost. As Tom Davis, Director of Federal Government Affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP notes, “significant amounts of government funding have gone to waste due to agencies trying to tackle too much at once.” While this thinking is not necessarily new, the current fiscal environment has convinced many that “agile” is the right approach to successful programs.
“Flat is the new up” may not be an ideal situation, but it is the one government agencies have come to know. To adjust, they will need to become more innovative in the way they extract efficiencies and cost savings out of their operations. Moreover, they will need to prove, every step of the way, that their programs are valuable. In a time of constrained budgets, failing to do so may result in reduced funding.
I encourage you to download the free report here.
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