Calling on Corporate Leaders: Now vs. Then

The White House sponsored a forum last week of about 50 corporate executives to seek  insights about how to successfully transform large organizations.  These included the leaders of Facebook, Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, and Whirlpool. Listening to the videos, it was quite reminiscent of a similar forum, sponsored by Vice President Gore’s reinventing government initiative almost 17 years ago.  While the participants were different, much of the challenges, and the advice, are still the same!


White House Forum on Modernizing Government (January 14, 2010).  The forum, held at the White House, was organized around three themes: streamlining operations, transforming customer service, and maximizing the return-on-investment from technology.    The forum broke into five work groups to ensure an interactive dialogue.  Each of the work groups was chaired by a deputy secretary.  At the end, each group came back to the main room with a summary of key points.

Here are video links to each of the five breakout groups:

The final summary session, lasting 30 minutes, was concluded by chief performance officer Jeff Zients, who said there would be four “next steps:”

  • The best ideas from the forum would be posted on the White House site and anyone could comment or expand on them.
  • OMB would issue a report summarizing key findings and develop an implementation plan by February 15, with a timeline, milestones, key challenges and ownership of initiatives
  • OMB would provide implementation assistance, including informal networks with the forum participants
  • Each of the 50 or so forum participants would be called for individual de-briefs on their advice and insights.

White House blogger Jesse Lee did a good job of summarizing the 22 key points.  One that sounded like a direct lift from reinvention was: “Engage managers in customer service.  Require executives to put themselves in customer shoes by calling into call centers as customers, taking customer service calls directly, and consistently signaling that they pay attention to customer feedback.”

Summit on Reinventing Government (June 25, 1993).  Vice President Al Gore led a day-long summit at Congress Hall, in Philadelphia, PA, on “Creating a Government That Works” to examine ways to make government work better and cost less.  Its purpose was to examine how the federal government could learn from cutting-edge businesses and state and local governments that have incorporated innovative ways of improving their operations.  These included leaders of General Electric, Motorola, and Harley-Davidson.  Afterwards, Gore identified several key approaches to transformation and six take-away lessons:

How do we change culture? Part of it lies in liberating agencies from the cumbersome burden of over-regulation and central control. Part of it hinges on creating new incentives to accomplish more through competition and customer choice. And part of it depends on shifting the focus of control: empowering employees to use their judgment; supporting them with the tools and training they need; and holding them accountable for producing results.


Following are six steps, identified by participants in the Philadelphia Summit:


  • First, we must give decisionmaking power to those who do the work, pruning layer upon layer of managerial overgrowth.
  • Second, we must hold every organization and individual accountable for clearly understood, feasible outcomes. Accountability for results will replace “command and control” as the way we manage government.
  • Third, we must give federal employees better tools for the job–the training to handle their own work and to make decisions cooperatively, good information, and the skills to take advantage of modern computer and telecommunications technologies.
  • Fourth, we must make federal offices a better place to work. Flexibility must extend not only to the definition of job tasks but also to those workplace rules and conditions that still convey the message that workers aren’t trusted.
  • Fifth, labor and management must forge a new partnership. Government must learn a lesson from business: Change will never happen unless unions and employers work together.
  • Sixth, we must offer top-down support for bottom-up decisionmaking. Large private corporations that have answered the call for quality have succeeded only with the full backing of top management.

Reinventing Saudi Arabia

David Osborne, of Reinventing Government fame, keynoted today’s session at the Saudi conference on public DNA Strandadministration.  He said there are two sets of reforms running in parallel across the globe today.  The first focuses on getting the basics right: a professional public service, rule of law, prosecuting corruption, a transparent budget and contracting system, etc.  A key to this approach is creating a hierarchical bureaucracy with standardized processes. The bureaucratic model is premised on the metaphor of a machine.  In this model, activities are planned, organized, predictable, and rational.

He said these reforms are prevalent in the developing world today, but were key agenda items in the U.S. in the early 20th century.

The second focuses on transforming public service into being flexible, responsive, innovative, and leverage the use of technology. . . and largely attempts to address the problems created by the bureaucratic and hierarchical reforms of the past.  This “information age” model is characterized as being complex and adaptive and is premised on the metaphor of a living, biological system.

He said these reform trends are more prevalent in the developed world today. However, he focused largely on this second set of reforms, noting that it may serves as an inspiration to a wider audience than just developed countries.

To change a biological system requires genetic engineering of an organization’s DNA, he noted, and then offered five strategies to “banish bureaucracy” where an organization’s DNA could be changed in ways that transform the organization to reflect the information age model.  He summarized these strategies as “The Five Cs” that can change an organization’s environment enough to get different performance from the same people.

The Core Strategy: Creating Clarity of Purpose. An organization has to create clarity of direction, purpose and role, and shed those things that do not contribute to the organization’s core goals.

The Consequences Strategy: Introducing Consequences for Performance . Performance has to be defined in relation to an organization’s goals and each person in the organization has to understand his or her contributions to those goals.  There needs to be written performance agreements, regularly personal feedback, and meaningful consequences.

The Customer Strategy:  Putting the Customer in the Driver’s Seat.  An organization’s services should be organized around its customers.  Wherever possible, customers should be given choices and organizations should be required to compete.  Service quality standards should be set and results should be reported upon publicly.

The Control Strategy: Shifting Control Away from the Top and Center. Organizations, employees, and communities should be empowered to act on behalf of their customers.  For example, organizations might be granted waivers from central government rules if that improves service delivery, and communities should be given the authority to solve their own problems.

The Culture Strategy:  Developing and Entrepreneurial Culture. Leaders need to change the habits, hearts, and minds of their employees to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in delivering on their agency’s mission.  Examples of tools to do this include having employees meet with their customers, encourage job rotations, internships, and contests.

Osborne told his audience that they could not skip the first phase of putting the basics in place, but one audience member asked if that meant that they would have to wait 100 years to be able to take on the second phase. He said “no,” that there were lessons learned by countries that have already completed first phase reforms and that with technology today, the second phase could likely start sooner.

However, based on the Reinventing Government experience in the U.S., it sure seems like a lot longer!

Dispatch from Saudi Arabia

I’m in Riyadh this week, blogging from afar at a conference on public administration.  The exotic is in the small things – Google comes up in Arabic with the scroll bar on the left and there’s an arrow painted on the ceiling of my hotel room pointing to Mecca.

The conference is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Kingdom’s Institute of Public Administration which heads the government’s professionalization and reform efforts (think – the recent U.S. attempt at creating a U.S. Public Service Academy).

Even though there are speakers from 45 countries, there is a heavy dose of Americans, including business author Tom Peters, Reinventing Government author David Osborne, Harvard’s Steve Kelman (who I think is also blogging on this conference), and the IBM Center’s executive director Jonathan Breul.

While the conference’s objective is to inspire public administrators in the Kingdom, I’ll try to snapshot some of the highlights that may be of interest to a U.S. audience. . . .

Tom Peters was the kickoff keynote speaker this morning, and was thoughtfully provocative as usual.  Peters co-authored one of the top business books of the twentieth century, In Search of Excellence in 1982 (and these days he writes a blog worth visiting!).  While he has posted his presentation on his blog, I’ll highlight three things that remind me why he was such an inspiration to me and fellow reinventors in the 1990s:

What is Excellence? Excellence, says Peters, is if you:

  • Care more than others think is wise
  • Risk more than others think is safe
  • Dream more than others think is practical, and
  • Expect more than others think is possible.

What is the Role of Senior Leaders? Senior leaders exist to help employees achieve excellence (see above for definition).  Peters reminds us that leaders can grow only when their colleagues are succeeding . . . “we are in the human development process.”  He said one organization promoted leaders based on their answer to the question:  “Name three people whose growth you contributed to in the past year and explain how.”

What is the Most Important Strategic Skill of Leaders? Listening.  He said doctors, on average, interrupt their patients within 18 seconds.  Imagine what it is for senior executives!  He says listening is of strategic importance, is a core value, is trainable, and is a profession.  The four most important words of a leader: “What do you think?”

If you found this inspiring as well, go back and re-read some of his books!

Recognizing Civil Servants

One of the things I learned working on the Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s for Vice President Gore was that civil servants do some pretty amazing things.  And they get little recognition for it.  But now it’s time to make government cool again!

There has long been recognition for top career senior executives, called the Presidential Rank Award.  The very top level winners are often personally presented their awards by the President.  There is also a monetary award that goes with this recognition.

Vice President Gore created Hammer Awards, which were given to teams of employees whose work exemplified the principles of reinvention:  putting customers first, cutting red tape, and empowering employees to get their work done.  There was no money, just a hammer.  There hasn’t been a similar award since 2001.

While having government recognize its own is important, it is equally important if not more so when the recognition comes from outside the executive branch.  Interestingly, there has been an increase in recognition for civil servants in recent years.

Since 2002, the Partnership for Public Service has sponsored the prestigious Service to America Medal, which will be presented later this month.  Last year, eight civil servants who have made a difference in the lives of others were recognized.

While it isn’t an award, the IBM Center started a weekly radio show ten years ago to learn from, and recognize, leaders and innovators in government.  It also publishes a magazine twice a year with excerpts from these interviews that it then shares widely with their peers in government.  The radio show has interviewed over 350 public managers over the years.

The Washington Post began a new weekly feature earlier this year, “Federal Players,” where it profiles a little-known civil servant who has a big impact.

The latest – and possibly the most interesting – addition to this field comes from Senator Ted Kaufman, from Delaware.  He has committed to tell the story of “Great Feds” — individual civil servants who are making a difference.  And he is telling these stories weekly from the floor of the Senate.

Sen. Kaufman was a former civil servant and an aide to Vice President Joe Biden before being selected to complete the last two years of Biden’s Senate term.  He has announced that he will not run for a full term, so he has nothing to prove.  The Washington Post has dubbed him a “Champion of Civil Service” and quoted him as saying:   “It’s bothered me for the last almost 30 years that people just feel it’s perfectly okay to denigrate federal employees,” Kaufman said yesterday. “It really, really bothers me, because they do make incredible sacrifices.”

The IBM Center has decided to re-post on its homepage a link to the short bios of civil servants selected by Sen. Kaufman for recognition.  We hope you find a way to recognize them as well!