Doing ‘Big Things’ in Government

Government can’t succeed with massive projects? It can, and it does. But there are some characteristics that are key to successful major endeavors.
by , | March 27, 2012

Citizens often see government as incapable of taking on large endeavors. They will point to failures such as the as the massive cost overruns that plagued Boston's Big Dig or the poor response efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But government does do many "big things" successfully. Look at the Apollo moon landings, or the decoding of the human genome, or the Y2K computer challenge.

At the state or local levels of government, "big" would be something in the billion-dollar range. At the federal level, it might range into the tens or hundreds of billions, like the Recovery Act. "All big things are not alike," says Tim Conlan, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University. He notes that both timing and context matter in how a leader approaches and organizes to take on a big challenge. For example, organizing for externally imposed time-urgent efforts, such as last year's BP Gulf oil spill, would be different from organizing for new policy initiatives such as implementing the stimulus program or building the Wilson Bridge that crosses the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland.

What are the characteristics of doing something "big" successfully?

Several panels at the recent annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration addressed this issue and identified a set of characteristics of "big things" that had gone well and took an enormous amount of coordination. These characteristics seemed to reach across the differences in the types of "big things" undertaken, whether they were externally imposed (such as recovering from a natural disaster) or self-imposed (such as a major construction project or the decoding of the human genome).

These characteristics include:

Designating a project leader and small team who report directly to the ultimate decision-maker. Implementation of the $787 billion Recovery Act required disbursing funds quickly and with a minimum of mistakes. The federal lead, Ed DeSeve, reported directly to President Obama, and in many states the state lead reported directly to the governor. Project leaders also need to have prior government experience in order to navigate the bureaucracy, and they needed to span the length of the project. James Webb, organizer of the Apollo moon venture and a veteran government executive, served as NASA administrator for almost the full length of the project.

Ensuring a shared clarity of goals. Build the interstate highway system, eradicate smallpox, land on the moon by the end of the decade, unravel the human genome: All of these goals were clear to the myriad participants in each of these endeavors. But it isn't just setting the goal. It is important to capture the imagination of the public and gain agreement from the many stakeholders — both at the political and at the technical levels — as well.

Building in a high level of transparency. Transparency may be helpful to external accountability and credibility, but it is essential to internal and cross-agency collaboration. Every big project requires many players to be on the same page and the best mechanism for this is transparency. A prime example is the Recovery Act's website, which was replicated in many states and major cities. This approach was also helpful in the BP oil-spill response as well as in the Haiti recovery efforts, with the use of videos and geospatial data.

Relying on cross-sector collaboration around common outcomes. Virtually no "big thing" can be accomplished using a traditional hierarchical approach. Networks of stakeholders, and sometimes a managed network of networks, have been at the heart of successful efforts. The South Florida Everglades Restoration Project involves 55 subprojects operated by federal, state, local and nonprofit entities working with urban, agricultural and ecological interests. While there are competing political and technical interests, they are working toward a common outcome of ensuring a sustainable ecosystem.

Using a sense of urgency to focus on priorities. Externally-driven "big things" — such as responding to the earthquake in Haiti — come with their own sense of urgency. For policy initiatives, creating deadlines is an important element in ensuring momentum and focus. The quarterly reporting deadlines for obligating the Recovery Act funds drove behavior at all levels of government. In fact, many states and localities created their own internal deadlines, requiring weekly reporting. But even more useful were commitments to resolve bottlenecks quickly. For example, Vice President Joe Biden committed to mayors and governors that he would get answers to problems they raised with Recovery Act implementation within 24 hours.

Allowing freedom to innovate. Rules are procedural safeguards to protect or promote specific social priorities, such as small businesses or worker safety. But they can also be an impediment if they are approached as routine compliance constraints. This does not mean ignoring them, but rather finding creative approaches to meet the same goals. Under the Recovery Act, regulatory approvals for worker safeguards that had to be approved by the Labor Department were streamlined to allow construction projects to move forward without reducing the worker protections covered by those regulations.

Allowing creative tension. While collaboration is an important element of most big projects, creative tension is also important. The continued U.S. commitment to the International Space Station came in part because of the partnership with Russia and other countries. If the United States didn't keep its commitment, these other partners would take charge, and that was seen as unacceptable by many Americans. Likewise, when the human genome sequencing project got bogged down at the National Institutes for Health, the external competition from private-sector entrepreneurs such as Craig Ventner sparked new internal collaboration and commitment by government partners.

While your city's or state's effort to get a major project done may not be as vast as some of the examples above, the characteristics should still be instructive as you set out to develop one. So go ahead, launch your "big thing."

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