Leadership Matters

Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID

The new administrator of the long-rudderless U.S. Agency for International Development is a real-time case study of how leadership matters. Rajiv Shah, 36, stepped into the job just five days before the devastating earthquake shattered Haiti.  According to the Washington Post, Shah suddenly found himself designated the “unified disaster coordinator” and in meetings with the President in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House.  He’s been getting rave reviews for his quick response, especially without any time for a learning curve.

In Shah’s case, being in the right place at the right time was fortuitous.  A recent report by the Partnership on Public Service on President Obama’s transition, one year into his administration, cited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July 2009 saying she was vexed by the long-standing USAID vacancy, “The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare. . . It is frustrating beyond words.”

The Washington Post’s “Head Count” database, which tracks the top 516 political positions, notes that over 40 percent of these positions are still vacant.  This includes critical positions such as the head of the Transportation Security Agency, which had to respond to the Christmas terror attempt, and the head of the General Services Administration, which received a 1,100 percent budget increase this past year as part of the stimulus bill.

The Partnership report concludes that the appointment clearance, vetting, and confirmation processes have been “intractable problems for a long time, and altering the status quo will mean a new mindset and strong leadership in the Senate, and cooperation from the president.”  The contrast between the leadership vacuum at GSA and the rapid response of USAID in Haiti show that an operational appointment process does matter.

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Debt Commission in the FY 2011 Budget?

Late in December 2009, the Senate increased the federal debt limit to a record $12.4 trillion – boosting chances for the establishment of a bipartisan commission to look for ways to force Congress to make painful spending cuts and tax increases.  The Washington Post reports that even though such commissions have had a mixed record in the past, 35 senators from both parties support creating a commission to force a vote on budget cuts and tax hikes.

Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) introduced legislation to create a bipartisan fiscal task force to address the nation’s long-term budget crisis.  The bill establishes an 18-member task force comprised of ten Democrats and eight Republicans.   According to Senator Conrad’s press release, the panel would have bipartisan co-chairs.  It would consist entirely of currently serving members of Congress as well as the Treasury Secretary and one other administration official selected by the President.  The task force recommendations, which would be submitted to the Congress after the 2010 elections, would be considered by Congress under expedited procedures.

President Obama is expected to include a proposal for a debt commission in his fiscal year 2011 Budget which will be sent to Congress the first week in February.  CNN’s White House correspondent Ed Henry reports that President Obama is seriously considering an executive order to create a bipartisan commission to consider sweeping tax increases and spending cuts to popular entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare in an effort to slash the soaring federal deficit.

Groups such as the Concord Coalition and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation continue to press for action to bring the deficit under control, while senior budget officials from Member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are drafting a report with strategies for countries to transition from current levels of fiscal imbalances to more sustainable levels.

Cutting Contractors

 OMB released a report today, “Acquisition and Contracting Improvement Plans and Pilots:  Saving Money and Improving Government,” which follows up on its July 2009 directive that agencies trim 7 percent – about $40 billion — from their contracting budgets over the next two years by improving their buying processes.

OMB says that agencies have undertaken several steps to achieve $19 billion in savings for the first year:

  • The 24 largest agencies, covering 98 percent of contract spending – have submitted plans with specific actions they will take to cut contracting costs and improve efficiencies.
  • Agencies have identified initiatives to save 10 percent of money spent through new high-risk contracts (noncompetitive, cost-reimbursement, or time-and-materials/labor-hour contracts).
  • Agencies have identified at least one pilot initiative where over-reliance on contractors may affect performance and then reassess the workforce mix.

OMB also reports that the Chief Acquisition Officers Council is “identifying new strategic-sourcing approaches, and how to structure contracts so as to provide better value for a lower price for commonly acquired goods and services.”

In a related story, the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe reports OMB deputy director Jeff Zients said “The government is the world’s largest total buyer of goods, but has permitted agencies to act as separate customers for too long, contributing, in part, to wasteful spending” and that OMB will increase most agencies’ acquisition workforces by about 5 percent in the coming fiscal year.

OMB offered several examples of how agencies are trimming their contracting costs:

  • Homeland Security standardized department-wide its desktop operating systems, e-mail, and office automation.  These standardized requirements allowed the Chief Information Officer to award a single contract, resulting in expected savings of $87.5 million over the next six years.
  • Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) launched a contracting tool that puts a service need up for bid “like e-Bay” that serves as a reverse auction where bidders offer their lowest price.  NNSA is seeing an average cost savings of 18 percent so far.
  • IRS switched from cost-reimbursement to a firm-fixed-price contract vehicle for processing support services, saving $6 million over the old approach.
  • Labor is investigating the potential benefit of in-sourcing a subset of contracted workers who currently process foreign labor certifications to see if this allows increased efficiency.

OMB says it will launch an on-line dashboard in spring 2010 to “allow the public to track whether agencies are progressing in their efforts. . . . Where progress is insufficient, OMB will work with agencies to develop aggressive steps to meet their targets.”

The Washington Post article also noted: “One item missing from the report is eagerly anticipated guidance on the definition of “inherently governmental functions,” a critical term in the contracting community that would clarify the tasks and services contractors should no longer conduct. Obama asked OMB to provide guidance on the matter in March. The agency promised to deliver an answer by year’s end, but officials said they need a few more weeks.”

Searching for a new Comptroller General

According to the “Head Count” in today’s Washington Post, President Obama has filled 293 (56.9 percent) of his 515 Senate-confirmed positions.  Curiously, one position the Washington Post does not track is the Comptroller General of the United States.

The Comptroller General heads the Congress’  “watch dog” agency – the Government Accountability Office (GAO).   The Comptroller General is appointed for one non-renewable 15-year term.  Upon his resignation on March 12, 2008,  former Comptroller General David Walker appointed Gene L. Dodaro to serve as Acting Comptroller General.

A statutorily bipartisan Congressional Comptroller General Commission has been considering candidates.  Once the Commission wraps up its work, it will send President Obama a non-binding list of at least three potential nominees, and the President may request that the commission recommend additional individuals. The President then selects an individual from those recommended to nominate as the new Comptroller General. The President’s nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.  This same process led to presidential nomination of David Walker, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, and former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

Roll Call’s Emily Yehle has been tracking the appointment process. See Search for GAO Chief Stuck in Neutral (September 14, 2009).   For more details, check out a pair of articles that Steve Katz and I published in Roll Call magazine) “GAO Requires a Multitalented New Leader “(July 6, 2009) and “Comptroller General’s Job Is a Balancing Act,” along with “Q&A with Former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher and David Walker” (part 1 and part 2) (July 7, 2009)

New OMB Program Evaluation Guidance

OMB LogoThe Office of Management and Budget released new guidelines to agencies to increase  their emphasis on conducting program evaluations.  According to the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe in his article, “OMB Wants More Data on Government’s Performance,” OMB’s Jeff Zients told him: “We’re working to create a system that’s actually used by senior decision-makers.”

According to OMB, the guidance launching this new program evaluation initiative will be launched government-wide as part of the fiscal year 2011 budget process:

  • OMB will work with agencies to post on-line ongoing or planned federal evaluations focused on program impacts.  One possible model is the HHS clinical trial registry and results data bank, ClinicalTrials.gov.
  • OMB will create an interagency working group to promote stronger evaluation, by working with the existing Performance Improvement Council.
  • OMB will allocate (some) funding to agencies that volunteer to undertake new evaluations aimed at determining the causal effects of programs.  Agencies wishing to participate have until November 4th to submit proposals to OMB using the template included in the guidance memo.

The priority for new evaluations will focus on “programs whose expenditures are aimed at improving life outcomes . . .for individuals” in areas such as health, social, educational, and economic programs.  “[M]ost activities related to procurement, construction, taxation, and national defense are beyond the initial scope of this initiative” as are drug and clinical medical evaluations, which are being funded via other means.

With this memo, OMB is taking a different approach to program evaluation than the previous Administration which systematically applied a Program Assessment Rating Tool to over 1,000 federal programs.  The new effort seems less systematic but more pragmatic. Rather than attempting to achieve comprehensiveness, it seems to be aiming for a targeted impact.

Falling Behind on Appointments

According to the Washington Post’s Al Kamen, “President Obama’s personnel operation, which got off to a record-breaking start early this year in filling top administration jobs, has stalled a bit in recent months. In fact, it’s well behind the pace set by the Bush administration in 2001 for the top 500 or so administration jobs — and time is quickly running out to close the gap.”

To date, the Senate has confirmed 48 percent of the top 504 positions the Post’s Head Count website is tracking.

Kamen says the reasons for the slow-down vary, including the focus on policy issues, the departure of the head of White House personnel, and the tightened vetting process.

Getting people in place before agency budgets get locked down this fall for fiscal year 2011 will likely be a challenge.  This leaves senior career executives in acting roles even longer.

ISO Good Ideas: Ask Employees Part II

Sixteen years ago in the heyday of reinventing government, if the White House wanted good ideas, it had to go look for them.  The reinvention team had a team of 250 career civil servants and a network of teams in each agency that did the looking.

But today, we have the Internet!  The Washington Post reports the “Search is On for Cost-Cutting Ideas.” Employees on the front line with good ideas can send them directly to the White House.  What kind of ideas are they looking for?  Anything that saves money, of course.  It’s called the “President’s SAVE Award,” for “Securing Americans Value and Efficiency.”

Federal employees can go to www.saveaward.gov and provide their ideas.  You’ll notice it is on the OMB website (no surprise) and they have a deadline (again, no surprise) of October 14th.

The winner (to be announced in November) doesn’t get any money, but does get to present their idea to the President in the White House sometime in November.

According to an OMB memo to agency heads, there are five criteria that will be used to judge each idea:

Does the idea reduce costs in a way that is concrete and quantifiable?

  • Does the idea improve the way that government operates by: Improving the quality of output at lower costs;  Simplifying processes to reduce administrative burden; or Improving the speed of government operations to improve efficiency?
  • Does the idea have a tangible impact on citizens’ lives or environment?
  • Is there a clear and practical plan for implementing the idea?
  • Will it be possible to begin realizing savings immediately?

P.S. – Okay, for the puzzled, “ISO” stands for “in search of . . .” NOT “International Standards Organization!”