What Keeps You Awake at Night:

David Letterman is not the only one with a Top Ten list! We've put one together as well, based on what we've heard from a...
by | November 9, 2009

David Letterman is not the only one with a Top Ten list! We've put one together as well, based on what we've heard from a wide range of government leaders and public policy academics. Our list is a snapshot of significant management issues facing public executives. We call it the "what keeps you awake at night" list.

1. Fiscal sanity. The nation is drowning in debt - driven largely by federal commitments to support health care and retirement costs for baby boomers. What's worse, rising health care costs are pushing state and local budgets into crisis as well.

America's current social insurance programs are both costly and antiquated. All roads to salvation at the federal, state and local levels require reforming public retirement and healthcare programs before they squeeze out other critical public priorities. Focusing on fraud, waste and abuse sounds tempting, but it won't solve the problem. Nor can we simply grow out way of this problem. This will take discipline and leadership. The sooner we get started, the better.

2. Crisis of competence. Many fear a crisis of competence in the public sector workforce. "Generation Y" has a strong service ethics, but not necessarily in public service. Unlike Baby Boomers who may have spent their entire career in one job, the new generation expects to change jobs. Key jobs in public service require substantial experience and training as the work of public servants has become more technical and service-oriented. For example, it takes four years to be certified as an air traffic controller. In recent years, more controllers have retired than are being hired and trained. Strategically planning for talent has become a critical necessity.

3. Information overload. Information overload is increasingly visible in daily life - cell phones, PDAs, email, instant messages, and "tweets," for example. The overload is also happening in government - hundreds of surveillance cameras in airports, a flood of weather and climate information, increasingly granular Census data, and real-time news events. The threat of information overload has increased, and along with it the possibility of missing important information. However, breakthroughs in data capture, data standards, and data storage have created opportunities for large-scale analysis. The challenge will be to develop government-wide, as well as mission-specific, information and analytic functions.

4. Governing without boundaries. Governments are currently organized based on a presumption that the world is relatively stable and predictable, and that the government's work can be rooted in large-scale, repeatable routines. The hierarchical bureaucratic model was adopted in the mid-20th century from the corporate world. However, increasingly this does not reflect today's realities. As a result, government is increasingly turning to non-hierarchical ways of doing business, often called "collaborative networks" and "boundary-less organizations." But these new models raise questions about how to govern effectively in a network-based environment. For example, how do you craft agendas and plans, set priorities, and allocate resources across boundaries? How do you ensure these choices are then accepted as legitimate, credible, and trusted by all those affected?

5. E-Government is only the beginning. Using information technology is no longer about doing the same things better. It is about finding common links between agency programs, eliminating duplication, and embracing a customer-centric view. Technology makes it easier to move, manage and manipulate information anywhere on earth. It makes everything more visible. The technology part may be difficult, but the really hard part will be working across different agencies to support the common customers of government. This is more of a cultural challenge than a technology challenge.

6. Government by contractors? All levels of governments currently depend more on contractors than at any time in history. However, an effective government needs a strong cadre of government workers supported by a strong cadre of contactors, each in an appropriate role. Government must strategically align its roles and capabilities so its programs are more effective. In doing this, it will save billions, and avoid the problems that come when it asks contractors to take on a governmental role.

7. Results really do matter. Focusing on accountable, results-oriented management can help government better position itself to meet the new challenges of this century. To become high-performing organizations, governments must transform their cultures to work closely with other governments, nonprofits and the private sector. A focus on results, not just of the organization, but its contribution to broader policy goals, is essential. In establishing a results-oriented culture that can reach its full potential, the organization and its leaders must carefully select the best solution for the organization in terms of structure, systems and processes.

8. "Green" leadership. Over the past decade, global warming from the burning of fossil fuels has moved from a high probability to a near certainty. How we and the rest of the world address the environmental challenges will largely determine the quality of life for our children and generations to come. Technology and markets play a crucial role, but governmental actions will be just as critical. People have repeatedly demonstrated innovative approaches around limits to growth if the incentives are right. Solving our environmental problems will require a blend of public policies and incentives that encourage technology and management innovations at every level of government.

9. Security and privacy in a flat world. Security and privacy issues need to be explicitly factored into any technology decision. The Internet, cheap data storage, wireless capabilities and a host of other technologies have helped fuel a decade of economic growth and government innovation. Yet, these technologies potentially carry many risks. Since we depend on them more, they matter more. Privacy issues raise concerns about the role of government. As a society, we have the choice of allowing technology to help government watch over us (with all of its good and bad connotations) or using technology to help us watch government.

10. Expect surprises. Government proved no match for Hurricane Katrina. The country can't afford any more fumbled responses to catastrophic or non-routine management challenges, whether caused by natural or human means. In the coming years, public leaders can count on more than their share of catastrophic and non-routine management challenges - for example another breakdown in the food safety system, a pandemic, a West Coast earthquake, or bio-terrorism in a major urban area. Responding to such challenges with traditional management approaches will only produce the same results seen in Hurricane Katrina.

In closing, with governments facing an array of complex challenges and opportunities for improvement, a strategic, long-term view is critical. Governments at all levels must carefully think about how best to design programs to manage effectively across boundaries and meet the nation's needs and priorities today and in the future.

Tell us what you think. Are these the challenges that keep you up at night? Have we missed something? Are there some challenges we've written about that don't belong on the list?


Jonathan D. Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center and a partner with IBM Global Business Services. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and can be reached at jonathan.d.breul@us.ibm.com.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also an associate partner with IBM Global Business Services and a fellow of the National Academy. He can be reached at john.kamensky@us.ibm.com.

For more on this topic, visit Ten Challenges Facing Public Managers.