Oct 11 2014

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A Modest Proposal for Real Reform

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Broken but Fixable...

Broken but Fixable…

Imagine the following hostile takeover fight.

Two large and well-financed groups struggle to win majority ownership of a holding company.  Recent changes in finance rules, and rapid advances in technology, have allowed both sides to target and motivate potential shareholders of the company to a degree unprecedented in history. The money to support those efforts is eye-popping in magnitude.

And what are they fighting over?

A bloated and creaking bureaucracy weighted down by unfathomable debt and layers upon layers of unnecessary management and rules. An organization straining under microscopic regulations and oversight, which cripple any hope of achieving mission objectives, thus botching core, service delivery functions in epic fashion. An organization that stifles innovation and punishes innovators in the exalted service of the status quo. An organization, needless to say, that is mistrusted by the majority of its shareholders.

Who would want it? Even if you sold it off piece by piece, you could never come close to covering the debt.

Indeed, the irony is that the two groups spending a small fortune to control the company have scant interest in its day to day operations or success. One side is focused on cutting the company down to size, balancing its budget and generally getting its pesky influence out of the shareholders lives. The other wants to pile on. Add new offices and divisions, expand the scope of company activities into new areas – borrowing even more money to finance the expansion.

Neither side offers a genuinely rational or credible path forward.  Shareholders are left to choose between the lesser of two evils, attempting to stop what they dislike the most.

Could you imagine?

But of course, this is a metaphor not for business – which would have put the company out of its misery years ago –  but for American politics and the government it enables today.

Between 2008 and 2012, total campaign spending for elections in the United States exceeded $15 billion. Yet, if anything, the results from those political referendums on actual governing have left us with a government that is less responsive, efficient and competent that in any recent time.

The IRS and NSA have gone rogue – politicizing operations in one case and perverting operational scope in the other. The EPA has taken it upon itself to extend its regulation by fiat.  Despite record budget increases, the VA is mired in scandal trying to provide care to our veterans. With three years of advanced planning time and a cool billion dollar budget, Health and Human Services utterly failed to create a functioning, secure website for Obamacare.

These are the items in the news, but they hardly give voice to the breath of the problems.

Consider that the US government makes roughly $125 billion in erroneous payments, every year. That’s roughly equal to the market capitalization of Citi Corp. Or look at the staggering waste this way. Each American living below the official poverty line could get a check for $2,700.00.  That’s not chump change.  With the official poverty rate set at $23,850 for 2014, citizens would hypothetically benefit from a 10 percent annual increase for a family of four, to a 25 percent increase for a single person in poverty.

Or consider IT. The GAO reports that nearly $10 billion in IT contracts in the federal government are at risk of failure.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) processes retirement packages for federal workers by hand – with old fashioned hard copy paper – in a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania. 600 employees processing 100,000 packages per year, stored in 28,000 file cabinets.

No, I’m not making that up. See here.

And before we jump to conclusions, this is not an indictment of federal workers. Understanding that there is no perfect employment cohort anywhere, federal workers – by and large – are good workers. Educated and motivated, many join government not for the caricature of insulated work and good benefits, but because they want to contribute,  taking great pride in public service. Lois Lerner and other famous abusers do a profound disservice to the vast majority of government employees who choose public service to make a difference.

Indeed, according to the Partnership for Public Service, 90 percent of federal workers wanted to do a better job. However, only 55 percent felt as if they were encourage to do better. And only 33 percent believed they would be rewarded for their innovations.

That speaks volumes to the toxic culture in the federal government, which is the go-to petri dish for the scandals, abuses and waste we see each day. Abuses that we citizens seem to have grown numb to, as if it is simply the acceptable cost of a functioning government.

While Republicans and Democrats are incessantly fighting for political control of the government to reflect a broad ideological vision, there is appallingly little interest in actual management control of the federal bureaucracy and its direction and effectiveness. All pay lip service to standards, efficiencies rules and results, but at heart it isn’t really what’s important to either side.

When a new president is elected, what are the most focused on jobs?

Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury, as well as Attorney General. And then down from there.

But in terms of governing the federal bureaucracy, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Director of the General Services Administration (GSA – government procurement) would be the most important. While OMB gets play for its influential role in budgeting, OPM and GSA are normally backwaters that are chosen and confirmed away from the public spotlight, well into a new president’s term.

Or look at important legislation.

We know about the “Stimulus” (aka ARRA). We’ve heard about Obamacare (ACA). But have you heard of GPRA-MA?

That would be the Government Performance & Results Modernization Act. Passed in 2010, GPRA-MA is an update to previous legislation that is perhaps one of the most consequential laws passed during President Obama’s term, as it seeks to pro-actively address and assess all federal activity through performance metrics. In so doing, baselines can be established and hard data can be used to test and fit new, more efficient or transparent practices into place.  But as in anything that his created and implemented by the federal government, progress toward meeting the objectives of GPRA, let alone creating a GPRA-like culture, are slow and uneven.

So I posit a modest proposal.

Let us begin with this self-evident premise: that the citizens of the United States are entitled to the most efficient, flexible, transparent and accountable government that is possible to devise regardless of political philosophy. That the threshold for success is not simply the size of government, but effectiveness.

Doing so will not be quick, cheap or easy, but the long term benefits to our national finances and the future of civic engagement depends upon it.

Outside groups are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to impact this year’s midterm elections.  A sizable portion of those funds are being invested in new, sophisticated technology that helps rival campaigns to identify, motivate and turnout voters. The analytical capability of this technology is unprecedented in revealing insight into behavior of millions of people – one at a time – and influencing it accordingly.

We need to unleash the power of this technology upon the federal government. If science and technology has allowed us to map the human genome, why is it that no reliable, interactive map of the federal government exists, showing at a minimum, offices, functions, personnel and results? If the NSA can download, store and analyze an entire nation’s electronic communications, why can’t we create a platform that intelligently assesses the factors affecting performance across the federal government?

What would it take to use today’s advanced analytics and a clear methodology to create a platform that could develop, from the bottom up, new architectures which unlock the “captive value” of our federal workers, and marry them with the very best technology in the service of clear missions? Such a paradigm not only improves performance, but offers the real potential for new approaches to chronic national problems.

It is not acceptable that over $100 billion a year is lost in preventable errors, or that $10 billion in government technology contracts are in jeopardy. It is not acceptable that it would be cheaper to cut social welfare recipients a check each year, than it is to manage the targeted programs designed for their support.  It is not acceptable that defense contracts routinely overrun their estimates by billions. It is not acceptable that the design of social insurance programs created in the 1930s and the 1960s remain effectively unchanged despite a demographic and technological revolution in the United States in the interceding period. It is not acceptable that we create laws and regulations with expanding control and diminished returns.

We deserve and must insist on better.

If the Koch brothers, George Soros, ALEC, and the gaggle of millionaires and billionaires that donate to pet causes were to reprogram a fraction of that cash into an ideologically neutral technology and methodological laboratory, and there was a political party with the courage to embrace the recommendations, which would challenge entrenched interests, adopting the reforms of the lab as a predicate of the national interest, we would be taking the first steps in securing our collective future.

Upon reflection, maybe it’s not so modest a proposal after all.

But it is vitally necessary.


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