Groundhog Day for Government: Avoiding the Same Old Traps

Successful public-sector initiatives follow a predictable path.
by | November 17, 2009

The public sector is showing a disturbing knack for inspiring cynicism. It's hard to think about government these days without conjuring images of failure: Katrina, the Big Dig, Iraq reconstruction.

Skepticism toward government is evident in the debate over health care reform. Many people simply don't have faith that government can successfully tackle such a large, complex undertaking. Only 23 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing.

It hasn't always been so. Achievements such as winning World War II, building an Interstate highway system and putting a man on the moon built confidence in our nation's government. But as President Obama has noted, citizens today question "whether or not we as a nation are capable of tackling our toughest challenges ... if we can still do big things in America."

Bill Eggers' and John O'Leary's new book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon..., shows us creative strategies for government success. But today Bill and John instead look with equal insight at the other side of the coin -- why so many efforts do not succeed.

- Stephen Goldsmith

What is behind our current crisis of execution? To understand the root of our problems, we studied more than 75 major initiatives since World War II. While these public undertakings vary in specifics, we found that nearly all followed a predictable path from idea to results. From the War on Poverty to the war on inflation, from fixing inner-city schools to putting a man on the moon, the journey to results is the same: You need a good idea, a well-designed piece of legislation, political support and strong implementation.

When we examined these undertakings, we also found that a predictable set of traps ensnare well-meaning initiatives time and time again. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," government initiatives of late keep falling into the same traps, generating the same disappointing results.

Design-Free Design: Many so-called implementation failures are actually byproducts of faulty design. Today, policy design is largely disconnected from the implementation process.

In 1998, the California legislature unanimously voted to restructure the state's electricity system. Within two years, blackouts were rolling across the state and bamboozling California consumers to the tune of $40 billion. Why? The bill was crafted to pass through the legislative wringer, but it wasn't designed to work in the real world.

The challenge is twofold: to view drafting legislation as a design process rather than a bill-passing exercise, and to take implementation issues seriously.

The Overconfidence Trap: In the public sector, everything is harder than it seems. Those who fall into the Overconfidence Trap consider only the best-case scenarios and plan with unrealistic budgets and impossible timelines.

The Iraq war is a classic example. Reconstruction was supposed to be easy, and as a result, the administration gave scant attention to what might happen after the "shock and awe" subsided. Enforced optimism meant there was no Plan B. When civil order broke down, we weren't prepared.

By contrast, planning for the possibility of failure can reduce the likelihood of unwanted outcomes. When introducing congestion pricing for vehicles, London was fanatical about mapping and mitigating every conceivable risk. By taking failure seriously, London successfully launched the largest congestion-pricing initiative ever.

The Complacency Trap. This trap describes the dangerous tack of staying the course when the circumstances around you change. Programs and agencies need regular reevaluation. In some cases what is being done no longer makes sense. In other cases, how it is being done no longer makes sense. Too often, "the way things are" can become a barrier to needed changes.

Public-sector examples of the Complacency Trap abound. The school calendar we use today is essentially based on the Farmers' Almanac, which makes a lot of sense for a 19th-century agrarian society but not so much for a 21st-century information society. Agricultural subsidies of the Dust Bowl era were designed to assist family farms, and now they subsidize agribusinesses. Our health insurance still reflects the 1940s concept of lifetime employment and provides little portability for frequent job changers.

One way to overcome the Complacency Trap is through "sunset laws," which change the default status from keep to eliminate. Under the Texas sunset process, for example, the legislature has to pass a new law to save the entity. To be meaningful, the Sunset review must be done by an independent agency. This process provides an ongoing mechanism for government to rethink how agencies can best fulfill their obligations. It also gives legislators the cover they need to do the right thing. All told, 54 Texas agencies have been abolished under sunset since its inception.

Voters are frustrated with the public sector's inability to accomplish big, important tasks. They want one thing: results. Enough good intentions permeate the public sector to pave a superhighway. Creating meaningful results will happen when initiatives stop falling prey to the same old traps.

William D. Eggers is the global director of Deloitte's public-sector research program. John O'Leary is a research fellow at the Ash Institute of the Harvard Kennedy School. They are co-authors of If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government (Harvard Business Press, 2009), from which this column is adapted.

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