Can Trump's business approach effectively reform government?
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Bringing business-centered solutions to the Sisyphean task of reforming government is absolutely necessary, but historically destined for failure. The Trump administration is well-positioned to make meaningful changes in the government processes that yield efficiencies, simply by its willingness to to go after traditional third rails in the bureaucracy. A successful approach, however, must dovetail the administration’s broad willingness to take on the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude with a fine, tactical use of the flexibilities that exist in government regulations but are not currently employed effectively.

American business is innovative, adaptive, and responsive to a constantly changing environment, and has much to teach the government about efficiency, accountability, and service delivery. However, government is fundamentally different from business. We deserve and demand a higher degree of transparency and accountability in government, as well as formal checks and balances, to prevent corruption and cronyism at every step of every process.

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Much has been made of the fact that business has a profit motive that is not shared by government — and that is, at the core, one of the fundamental differences that cause business-driven initiatives to fail in government contexts. In some areas of government, such as defense and homeland security, the price of failure is sometimes so high that effectiveness must be prioritized over cost efficiency.

 

Unfortunately, when every process is equally subject to outcome scrutiny, as it is in government, the end result is often a failure to fulfill the basic missions. We see this repeatedly in the sub-par outcomes of well-intentioned legislation and underfunded agency programs. Responsibility is so complex and burdensome at the de minimis transactional level that accountability and enforcement for program success are sacrificed.

To master government reform using a commercial business approach, the administration will grapple with significantly more complex “levers” of change than those existing in business. Business levers are operated by a true ultimate “boss” at each level, a simpler metric of success (dollars), and the ease of changing resource allocations within the organization based on simple logic. In government, the regulatory thicket, diverse stakeholders, and unfunded (or chronically underfunded) mandates for outcomes require the ability to navigate the obscure flexibilities that already exist in order to truly drive mission success.

There is often good legislation and regulation already on the books. There are good intentions and talent within the bureaucracy. The art is identifying which levers are available within the forest of regulations, identifying the preemptive conversations and adjustment required to be able to push those levers effectively, and to communicate the mission so that the entire organization, like an aircraft carrier, can turn slowly around.

The new administration has clearly seen the difficulty of legislative change in the recent attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. However, some of the most effective changes in government efficiency are tools of the administrative branch and don’t necessarily require legislative change.

These tools can just as easily be leveraged by competing stakeholder groups to derail changes. In a battle of bureaucracy, the victor will be the the one who can leverage the existing arcane bureaucracy most effectively. For example, a skilled political appointee can leverage the Administrative Procedures Act to make changes to the implementation of a critical government program, or a determined opponent can leverage the Paperwork Reduction Act to gut the implementation of another program.

Most efforts to bring business practice to government have been led by business leaders, similar to the White House Office of American Innovation as well as the Defense Business Board’s report on transforming the Department of Defense’s Core Business processes, which were recently referenced by Secretary James Mattis in his initial set of memos in January.

But these business-only efforts lead to indefensible conclusions — that the government can realize standard 4 percent to 8 percent efficiency gains year over year based on efficiency gains in the private sector, with a promised $125 billion in savings over 5 years, for example, when the report acknowledges that only 17 percent of fundamental change projects deliver full potential even the private sector where the barriers to change are dramatically easier to overcome.

For far too long in the government, there have been “sacred cows” that are entirely untouchable in government reform efforts. The Trump administration brings a clear opportunity to make major change to our inefficient bureaucracy by disregarding those knee-jerk “we can’t do that” reactions. That opportunity comes with significant risk, but also potentially great reward. But to get it right requires not only business sense, but a keen understanding of the way government can, should, and does work.

Lauren Weiner, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of WWC, a management consulting firm with extensive experience at the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and USAID. She served as policy analyst in the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Major General (ret.) Michael Jones is a strategy expert at WWC. He served as chief of staff of U.S. Central Command under General James Mattis.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.