HUD’s Open Gov Plan Focuses on Mission

The Collaboration Project hosted a “lessons learned” forum last week on how agencies developed their Open Government Plans.  I was particularly impressed with what the presenter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said, so I dug a bit further and read its plan (or its exec sum). The presenter, Stan Buch, said the department initially approached the effort from a more tactical perspective — as a technology initiative — but quickly saw it as a strategic effort to help transform how the department achieves its mission goals.

As a result, the department is creating a program management office to spearhead its Open Government efforts, and it will operate under the department’s new chief operating officer, Estelle Richman.  It’ll have working groups focused on technology, culture, and policy, in addition to specific mission-related initiatives.

More significantly, it has tied its Open Government initiatives into its department-wide strategic planning efforts and its “high priority goals” that are featured in the President’s budget.  Specifically, it has identified a series of “bureaucracy busting” flagship initiatives, such as:

  • Establish an innovation lab to explore ways to use mobile technology (i.e., cell phones) to provide better information to public housing residents – whether it is emergency information or the ability to provide on-the-spot resolution to problems.
  • Proactively allocate homeless prevention aid to communities based on predictive analytics.  HUD plans to use data sets from throughout the government to build predictive models and map-based visualizations of communities that may be at risk of increased homelessness. The data will be used to forestall potential waves of homelessness due to increased foreclosures, business bankruptcies that might wipeout pensions, etc.
  • Build and host an on-line business practices exchange for non-profit housing providers to share ideas with each other.  Helping community-based non-profits with tools, guidance, and connecting with each other will allow them to become “force multipliers” in their own communities, without the direct involvement of HUD.

HUD’s plan has gotten external recognition, as well.  The non-profit OpenTheGovernment’s assessment of agency Open Government Plans ranked HUD second only to top-ranked NASA.

Have you seen instances where other agencies have used their Open Government initiatives to leverage outcome-oriented, mission-related strategic initiatives?


Open Gov Plans Released, And . . .

. . . Both the White House and the Open Government advocacy groups plan to assess them.   No good deed goes unnoticed!

The White House says it will evaluate them by May 1st (this implies that OMB posted the agency plans before it reviewed them – this is a huge change!).  The Open Government advocacy groups are inviting others to volunteer to help assess agencies’ plans, based on a set of criteria they’ve developed.  This is somewhat reminiscent of the scoring of agency Annual Performance Reports under the Government Performance and Results Act by the Mercatus Center, but in this case, it’s more open!

Yesterday, White House staffer Beth Noveck, who has been shepparding the Open Government initiative, wrote a blog entry summarizing some of the highlights she’s read so far.  Her summary is worth reading.  For example, the list of “flagship initiatives” is exciting.  HUD is developing a predictive tool to determine where homelessness may increase, in an effort to forestall it.  And the Department of Health and Human Services is developing a dashboard to allow users to track and graphic Medicare spending on different key services, by large hospitals.

I’ve largely missed much of this hoopla because I’ve been attending conferences on the West Coast.  But the topic  of Open Government is on the front burner, even there!

Yesterday, I participated in a panel sponsored by the American Bar Association in San Francisco.  I summarized what’s been going on in Washington regarding the Open Government efforts, but I learned a lot from what’s going on in the field.

Another Potential Assessment Framework.  I was particularly enlightened by a description of how to think about citizen involvement at different stages in the “life cycle” of a policy issue.  Prof. Lisa Bingham, from Indiana University, offered a scholarly model that might serve as a useful assessment tool for agency Open Government Plans, as well as legislative reforms in the future.

Prof. Bingham looked at citizen involvement as described in administrative law and rules and outlined a three-part framework:

Source: Lisa B. Bingham, "Collaborative Governance: Emerging Practices and the Incomplete Legal Framework for Citizen and Stakeholder Voice," Missouri Journal of Dispute Resolution, Vol. 2009, No. 2


Upstream Involvement.  Here, citizens can be engaged in the development of a policy through dialogue and deliberation.  This would include both the legislative and the quasi-legislative elements of policymaking.  Examples include the use of tools such as Deliberative Polling, Citizen Assemblies, and Study Circles.  The objective is to gain informed citizen input before a proposal is completely formed.

Midstream Involvement.  This is the stage where a policy is being implemented. This would include tools such as negotiated rulemaking, participatory budgeting, and watershed networks.  The objective at this stage is to involve citizens in helping define and prioritize how a policy should be implemented.  An example in the recently-passed health care bill is citizen involvement in developing a national strategy for health care quality.

Downstream Involvement. This is the stage where policies are being enforced through judicial or quasi-judicial means.  The tools would include alternative dispute resolution, mediation, and facilitation.  The objective is to avoid the “win-lose” scenarios that would be imposed through agency adjudication or court action.

Prof. Bingham is concerned that the existing federal legal framework deals with these elements in a piecemeal fashion and encouraged consideration of a “Collaborative Governance Act” that would update laws, such as the 1947 Administrative Procedures Act, which did not foresee the existence of the internet and its impact on how government and citizens interact today.  OMB did offer some new, more liberal, interpretations of some of these statutes in memos released in recent days, but Prof. Bingham thinks that legislation may be needed to reach much further.

Veterans Affairs: “Transformation 21” and Beyond

The Department of Veterans Affairs, like HUD, is undertaking significant transformation efforts with congressional support.  Its initial “Transformation 21” plan was framed around its fiscal year 2010 budget.  Subsequently, more is on the way, but it has not yet been fully released.

Transformation 21. VA secretary Eric Shinseki released his Transformation 21 initiative in early 2009.  These early efforts focused on a series of focused initiatives:

  • Creating a “virtual lifetime electronic record” to ensure uniform registration of all military service members, in conjunction with the Defense Department
  • Accelerating a “telehealth” and home care initiative, primarily for older, chronically ill veterans in order to keep them out of hospitals
  • Eliminating homelessness among veterans
  • Self-service devices so veterans can improve interactions with VA staff, and an integrated “veterans relationship management” system
  • Developing a human capital plan for strategically managing VA’s staff of nearly 300,000

He has had some success, according to an early assessment.

In addition, his is one of the very few agencies that has obtained congressional authority to forward fund at least part of its budget.  Congress gave VA the authority to forward fund its medical services in advance by one year.  This responds to the concerns of veteran advocates, who complained that, because of congressional delays, VA received its budget late in 19 of the last 22 years.  This has disrupted the delivery of health services.

Subsequent Transformation Initiatives. The Transformation 21 effort was only the beginning.  With its feet now on the ground, the new VA leadership team is putting together a farther reaching plan, framed around 13 major initiatives.

VA seems to be mirroring some of the transformation efforts that the Defense Department undertook almost a decade ago (which makes some sense, given that some of the Defense reform executives are now at VA and leading the working groups).  The Defense effort, now called the Business Transformation Agency, started with an inventory of over 5,000 business systems and then led to the integration of a number of major systems – such as acquisition and human resources – across the department.

VA started this approach several years ago with the integration of its technology staff.  It took congressional action to move about 5,000 IT staff from reporting to hospital administrators to reporting to a central IT office and giving the departmental chief information officer decision authority over major IT project spending.   But even with the major restructuring nearly completed, VA has begun re-thinking its IT investment approach.  After the White House IT Scorecard rated a number of VA projects as failing, the CIO created a rigorous process to track all of its ongoing IT projects.  It also is transitioning from a series of disconnected projects to a set of portfolios around major initiatives.  For example, one portfolio is being created around a veteran-centric benefit system, where there will be a “single face” to the veterans.

VA is also undertaking a major overhaul of its procurement system, which has been widely seen as broken.  VA reached out to 210 vendors, asking them how it could do its business better.  It has committed to train all of its 4,900 acquisition personnel in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, in project management, and in leadership skills.  VA is also overhauling its contract vehicles.  For example, it is creating a new contract vehicle for IT solutions, one for purchasing commodities, and another for buying software licenses.  Together, these could save the department millions that could be better spent on services to veterans.

Similar transformation efforts are underway in VA’s personnel office and its financial management system.  However, the greatest emphasis is on mission delivery functions that focus on VA’s recently identified four strategic goals:

  • Improve the quality and accessibility of healthcare, benefits, and memorial services while optimizing value.
  • Increase Veteran client satisfaction with health, education, training, counseling, financial, and burial benefits and services.
  • Raise readiness to provide services and protect people and assets continuously and in time of crisis.
  • Improve internal customer satisfaction with management systems and support services to make VA an employer of choice by investing in human capital.

These were then broken down into a series of 13 “greatest challenges,” such as eliminating homelessness among veterans and eliminating the backlog of pending benefit claims.

The VA leadership is planning on using operational management reviews, dashboards and “temperature checks” along the way to emphasize execution, not just planning.  How is this playing out with Congress?  In fiscal year 2010, VA received a record budget increase.

HUD Transformation Initiative

As mentioned here a few days ago in  blog entry on innovation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been given in fiscal year 2010, what seems to be a large pot of money and new authority to conduct a transformation initiative in four areas that have been historically underfunded in HUD as well as most other agencies:

  • Research, evaluation, and program metrics
  • Program demonstrations
  • Technical assistance and capacity building
  • Information technology

Secretary Shaun Donovan was given authority by Congress to set aside up to one percent of the department’s budget (nearly $230 million) to support a new “transformation initiative.”

“However, [the House Appropriations] Committee is not in a position to grant full flexibility at this time, nor does the Committee believe flexibility to be the key obstacle in solving these issues.” So the Committee put some constraints on HUD’s use of these monies:

Information Technology Plans. “. . . not less than $80,000,000 and not more than $180,000,000 shall be available for information technology modernization, including development and deployment of a Next Generation of Voucher Management System and development and deployment of modernized Federal Housing Administration systems”. . . and “. . . .not more than 25 percent of the funds made available for information technology modernization may be obligated until the Secretary submits to the Committees on Appropriations a plan for expenditure that:

(1) identifies for each modernization project (a) the functional and performance capabilities to be delivered and the mission benefits to be realized, (b) the estimated lifecycle cost, and (c) key milestones to be met;

(2) demonstrates that each modernization project is (a) compliant with the department’s enterprise architecture, (b) being managed in accordance with applicable lifecycle management policies and guidance, (c) subject to the department’s capital planning and investment control requirements, and (d) supported by an adequately staffed project office; and

(3) has been reviewed by the Government Accountability Office:

Technical Assistance Funds. Of the remaining money, “. . . not less than $45,000,000 shall be available for technical assistance and capacity building. . . “ And this “technical assistance activities shall include, technical assistance for HUD programs, including HOME, Community Development Block Grant, homeless programs, HOPWA, HOPE VI, Public Housing, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Fair Housing Initiative Program, Housing Counseling, Healthy Homes, Sustainable Communities, Energy Innovation Fund and other technical assistance as determined by the Secretary” . . .

Research, Evaluation, Program Metrics, and Program Demos.  “. . . of the amounts made available for research, evaluation and program metrics and program demonstrations, the Secretary shall include. . .”

“. . ..  an assessment of the housing needs of Native Americans, including sustainable building practices” and “an evaluation of the Moving-to-Work demonstration program” . . . And the Senate Committee “. . .  encourages the Secretary to plan or begin a demonstration on the conversion of public housing to Section 8 project-based vouchers.”


Plans on Use of the Monies.  And to top it off: “. . . the Secretary shall submit a plan to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations for approval detailing how the funding provided under this heading will be allocated to each of the four categories identified under this heading and for what projects or activities funding will be used.”  . . . . This plan is due 30 days after the bill was enacted – which would be January 15. . . . so some folks in HUD didn’t have much of a Christmas holiday!  Or, with the new monies, did they?

So, while there may not have been much flexibility provided in the use of the funds, if a similar opportunity was available other agencies, is this the kind of transformation initiative other agencies might want to have?

Chances to Innovate

Two departments received special authorities this past year that are intended to improve their abilities to manage.  It will be interesting to watch to see how they use these authorities.  If these agencies can demonstrate success, then there’s a good chance that Congress might extend these authorities to other agencies.

HUD’s  One Percent Set-Aside for Transformation. The fiscal year 2010 budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was not approved until mid-December.  Its budget, though, had an innovative provision allowing Secretary Shaun Donovan to set aside a total of about one percent of the department’s budget (nearly $230 million) to support a new “transformation initiative.”

The monies are to be used in four areas that have been historically underfunded in HUD as well as most other agencies:

  • Research, evaluation, and program metrics
  • Program demonstrations
  • Technical assistance and capacity building
  • Information technology

VA Forward Funding Bill. About 20 years ago, the British began to fund their agencies’ administrative budgets in three-year rolling increments.  The idea was that a stable budget environment would allow better resource allocation and spending.  This idea was adopted by Vice President Gore’s reinventing government initiative but went no where.

The idea, however, has finally returned, and the first agency to benefit is the Department of Veterans Affairs.  In mid-October, Congress authorized VA to budget its medical accounts a year in advance.  As a result, VA hospitals can plan their resources for a two-year period instead of the typical one-year that most other agencies face.

I’ll provide more details about each of these two opportunities to innovate in subsequent blogs. . . .