Management Insights

When the Best Intentions Lead to Disaster

As the Department of Veterans Affairs begins the long, difficult and expensive process of addressing the problems that led to its scandal over falsified wait times for veterans seeking medical appointments, government managers who want to keep their own enterprises out of the same kind trouble would do well to look at the elements that brought the VA down.

At the heart of the VA scandal is the falsification of records in the face of a huge surge in veterans needing care and insufficient resources to serve them. One study by federal auditors found that, while official VA reports claimed that some vets waited 24 days for an appointment, the average wait time was actually 115 days. And there is another, equally troubling aspect to the scandal: the harsh reprisals to which VA workers who tried to report wrongdoing were subjected. READ MORE

What a Public Employee Really Costs

During my time as Oregon's secretary of state, I came to the conclusion that America's two main political parties were imprecisely named. What we really have is an "anti-government" party and an "anti-anti-government" party. This attitudinal divide is especially evident when it comes to the issue of public-employee compensation.

Those in the anti-government camp like to cite studies such as the one published monthly by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Government Workers Cost More than 45% More than Private Sector Workers," is the headline one commentator recently gave to this study. READ MORE

When a Public Agency Is Badly Broken

A single silver lining in the Department of Veterans Affairs' health-care scandal may be the teaching moment the disclosure of the agency's failures has provided. Thoughtful public managers at all levels of government are pausing to reflect and consider how -- or if -- such a pattern of poor performance, cover-up and mistreatment of whistleblowers could happen in their agencies. My experience suggests that under the wrong conditions, any public agency can slide into habits that treat those it serves with indifference and find ways to falsely claim competence and success.

The appointment of a new veterans' affairs secretary from a corporation with a textbook reputation for inculcating a culture of high performance, competence and customer service is a good first step. Yet Proctor & Gamble's disciplined corporate culture was built over decades and is sustained by selecting, mentoring and promoting leaders at all levels who have internalized that culture. READ MORE

Performance Management in Government: The Old Is New Again

For all of the interest and excitement surrounding current efforts to expand performance management in government, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the concept was born in the past decade or two. Yet today's innovative approaches to finding ways to deliver public services more efficiently -- from proliferating "stat" programs to powerful data-analytics tools -- have their roots in research going back to the early part of the last century.

The early work of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, in measuring the efficiency of municipal services, for example, was so well received that it served as one of many catalysts to the development of public-sector performance-management approaches. We published the first in a series of 14 articles focused on "economies," or ways to improve performance in a variety of local-government areas, in Public Management magazine back in July 1932. Five years later, graduate student (and eventual Nobel laureate) Herbert A. Simon, along with then-ICMA executive director Clarence Ridley, authored an article titled "Technique of Appraising Standards," the first in a series on management standards in city administration. READ MORE

Technology’s Crucial Role in the Fight Against Hunger

National Geographic recently sent three photographers to explore hunger in the United States. It was an effort to give a face to a very troubling statistic: Even today, one-sixth of Americans do not have enough food to eat. Fifty million people in this country are "food insecure" -- having to make daily trade-offs among paying for food, housing or medical care -- and 17 million of them skip at least one meal a day to get by. When choosing what to eat, many of these individuals must make choices between lesser quantities of higher-quality food and larger quantities of less-nutritious processed foods, the consumption of which often leads to expensive health problems down the road.

This is an extremely serious, but not easily visible, social problem. Nor does the challenge it poses become any easier when poorly designed public-assistance programs continue to count the sauce on a pizza as a vegetable. The deficiencies caused by hunger increase the likelihood that a child will drop out of school, lowering her lifetime earning potential. In 2010 alone, food insecurity cost America $167.5 billion, a figure that includes lost economic productivity, avoidable health-care expenses and social-services programs. READ MORE