Lots of federal processes are inefficient and wasteful, but many others have become more efficient and effective over time. We need a competition to highlight the best so they can spread.

The headline read, “Pentagon Buries Evidence of $125 Billion in Bureaucratic Waste.” The Washington Post article said that, had its recommendations been followed, the 2015 study  “would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.” It’s no secret that lots of federal processes are inefficient and wasteful. Unlike in the private sector, there are few pressures toward efficiency. But through ongoing competition within government we can do better.

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Who does a better job at preparing annual budgets, the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services? Who does a better job at large-scale procurements, the Department of Energy or the Department of Housing and Urban Development? What agency is best at hiring the right people for the right jobs in the shortest time? No one knows.

When I helped run Vice President Al GoreAl GoreTrump’s isolationism on full display at international climate talks Overnight Energy: Trump officials defend fossil fuels, nuclear at UN climate summit | Dems commit to Paris goals | Ex-EPA lawyers slam 'sue and settle' policy Al Gore: A new president in 2020 could keep US in Paris agreement MORE’s National Performance Review, we never tried to compare an agency or department’s processes with others. We focused on bringing to the federal government the best ideas from the private sector. We wanted a government that “works better and costs less,” but we never sought out the best approaches to the standard, everyday processes of government as they have evolved over decades.

We need to start doing that. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be free, but competition will help sort the good from the mediocre from the truly awful. And there is plenty to sort through.

There are 15 Cabinet departments, each encompassing many agencies. Homeland Security has 22 major agencies, for example. Health and Human Services has 11 and Transportation has six. Each such agency produces its own budget, which is then subsumed into its departmental budget. The Office of Management and Budget receives all the departmental budgets, as well as many more from the independent agencies.

I was deputy assistant secretary for budget and programs at Transportation during the George H.W. Bush administration. There was a world of difference in the quality of the budgets prepared by the Federal Aviation Administration and those of the Federal Transit Administration. I know OMB would have said the same about our departmental submission vs. that of the Department of Defense.

And budgets are just part of the story. Countless federal agencies promulgate regulations affecting life across these United States. Which agencies’ regulatory processes are most efficient, measured by staff hours invested and elapsed months (or years) after congressional authorization? Which demonstrate the most rational processes in both theory and practice? Which regulations, after implementation, have affected the targeted problem for better or worse, and why? And budgeting and regulations are again only part of the story. That 2015 Pentagon study was subdivided into six categories: human resources, health-care management, supply chain and logistics, acquisition and procurement, financial-flow management, and real-property management.

The best way to improve these processes government-wide is to identify our own “best practices” and share them widely. The late Everett Rogers, author of “The Diffusion of Innovations,” would say that getting good ideas adopted is easier if those ideas come from similar organizations – they are far less “novel” if they’re already in practice and successful somewhere nearby.

So how best to find and publicize best practices among all these agencies and departments? I’d suggest creating a process that parallels the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in Government Program. Since 1986, this program has recognized hundreds of innovative federal, state and local government programs. I can recommend the program because I’m very familiar with it; I’ve been a judge in its management and governance section for a decade. I’ve seen it up close.

But while the Harvard program searches out innovations, as did the National Performance Review, I’d propose a continual review of existing processes, aiming to identify and recognize the best among them. We’d have an annual competition, perhaps with prizes as well as publicity. To develop the needed criteria, I’d enlist winners of the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, given to no more than 1 percent of senior executives annually. The Senior Executives Association brings them together in DEAN, the Distinguished Executive Award winners Network. (Disclaimer: I was a winner in 1997.) An annual competition would of course involve some costs. Those costs would be dwarfed by the resulting savings as more efficient and effective processes spread around the federal government.

Competitions are an increasingly common means of achieving “stretch goals” – see for example, the DARPA Grand Challenge and challenges put forth by the X PRIZE Foundation. The Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight attracted over $100 million in investment for a $10 million prize.

One or more well known sponsors can help focus attention on the competition. Candidates might include the Kennedy School, perhaps along with Harvard’s Business School; the Volcker Alliance; the IBM Center for the Business of Government; the new Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution; or one of our local universities. There are many possibilities.

Government does many things well. With public trust in government -- particularly the federal government -- at historic lows, there's never been a better time for a continual process to share ways to make it operate more efficiently and effectively. This can unite both Democrats and Republicans.

Let the competition begin.

Robert Knisely worked in the executive branch for over thirty years, with positions in seven Cabinet departments, a regulatory commission, and three independent agencies, as well as two presidential initiatives and the 1973 energy crisis. He has also served on both sides of presidential transition teams, and participated in the creation and operation of Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review.


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