Modernizing Government: Forum Results

The White House sponsored a forum back in January to gain insights from corporate CEOs and labor leaders to identify best practices in the use of technology to streamline federal operations, improve customer service, and maximize returns on technology investments.  It has released a report summarizing the results and commits to following through on a number of recommendations.

 First Principles.  The report describes a set of principles for modernizing government that corporate CEOs thought were important:

On leading organizational change:

  • Establish clear goals and a vision.  Bold goals can shift thinking; modest goals encourage incremental thinking.
  • Create a “solution-oriented” environment.  Use small, cross-functional teams to tackle problems.  Focus on solutions, not constraints.
  • Scope projects with reasonable timeframes and regular milestones.  Projects over 18 months do not make sense in the commercial world.  If tangible customer benefits cannot be achieved in 12 months, the project should be terminated.

On maximizing technology return-on-investment:

  • Re-engineer operational processes first.  Technology should follow, not precede this step.
  • Continuously engage business unit managers in technology efforts.  Assign the best people to run tech transformation efforts, and fully dedicate them to the project. Integrate business units into the effort, as well. 
  • Procure technology in a manner that meets organizational needs. Dragging out the procurement process increases the risk of IT obsolescence.
  • Minimize customization and use shared services.  Standardizing common processes reduces risk and costs.

On transforming customer service:

  • Create a culture of customer service.  Managers must regularly interact with  customers so they understand their needs, and front-line workers must be empowered to actually solve problems.
  • Clearly communicate service standards and expectations.  This motivates employees and helps manage customer expectations.
  • Understand customer needs and provide consistent service across channels. Consistency of service across channels – phone, in person, on line – is important.

Next Steps

As a starting place, OMB says it will focus on applying private sector best practices in  two areas:  IT program management and customer service:

Action 1:  Increase accountability by governing IT projects in a transparent manner.  OMB has started by developing the Federal IT Dashboard to track IT projects, and by using “TechStat” sessions with agencies to review specific at-risk projects.

Action 2:  Evaluate comprehensive IT project review practices.  OMB is soliciting IT project review processes and related tools from the private sector, in order to systematically review progress of major projects.

Action 3:  Develop customer satisfaction surveys that measure the customer experience.  Focus not only on satisfaction with a specific transaction, but the overall customer experience.

Action 4:  Clearly state customer service standards.  OMB is already working with agencies “to encourage them to clearly articulate their customer service standards and post them publicly.”

Action 5:  Create a community of customer service excellence.  OMB is in the process of forming just such a community to connect federal managers across agency boundaries to share their best practices.

Action 6:  Facilitate ad hoc interactions and informal networking.  CEOs who participated in the forum were interested in continuing the conversations begun that day.  OMB is encouraging continued informal interactions and will attempt to “match” CEOs with specific federal management challenges.

Action 7:  Cross-agency efforts.  Existing cross-agency councils — such as the Chief Financial Officers Council and the Chief Information Officers Council – could be a mechanism for sharing best practices across government. 

Action 8:  Agency-specific efforts.  OMB could “match interested CEOs and other private leaders with deputy secretaries and their teams for informal, individual counsel.”

In addition, notes OMB, the forum demonstrated the potential impact of establishing more formal, standing bodies of private sector leaders to advise the federal government on management performance issues, possibly modeled on the Defense Business Board, where senior corporate executives provide independent advice to defense leaders on future directions.


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.