Who Owns Government Efficiency?

Professional managers will always be key, but lawmakers who care about efficient government can have a big role to play.
by | March 19, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

After I gave a talk to a group of government leaders in Oregon, one of them came up to me and told me he was a constitutional lawyer and there was something I as a businessman didn't understand.

"Government was not designed to be efficient," he said. He went on to explain that nowhere in the Constitution or in the intent behind it was talk of efficiency. Rather, the purpose of government is to achieve certain outcomes for its citizens, such as the protection of rights, public health and safety, education, management of our precious natural resources and so on.

In other words, outcomes are important; efficiency is not.

When the economy is expanding, the sins of inefficiency are well covered by the blessings of abundance. Now, with the national debt ballooning and many governmental entities suffering from constrained revenues, efficiency is no longer a nice-to-have. It's essential to deliver on the ever-expanding demands for citizen outcomes.

But who owns efficiency? Whose job is it to make sure government delivers vital services efficiently and effectively? Is it the legislative branch or the executive branch?

"People do not get elected into government because they want to manage it," explains Washington state Sen. Jim Kastama. "Very few legislators are interested in management or know much about management theory."

That said, there are plenty of lawmakers who do care whether government is effectively delivering the citizen outcomes the legislature feels are critical. And when it is not, legislators have a two-weapon arsenal to fight for it: laws and budgets.

Kastama, who is now running for secretary of state in Washington, is looking to cross branches, so his interest in efficient government is strong. "The executive branch needs to demonstrate to the legislative branch what great government is," he contends. "When they do, both the legislators and the citizens will recognize it." That's why Kastama has been studying his peers to the south in Oregon.

Fred King, committee chair for the Oregon's Governor's Committee on Performance Excellence (spanning the gubernatorial administrations of both Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber), led the charge last year to pass legislation mandating that agencies adopt outcomes-based management.

"It is so easy for the agencies to simply react to the legislature, their constituents, lobbyists, organized labor and the media," says King. "But for government to be viable, we have to keep it focused on citizen outcomes. The legislature can effectively help keep that focus, but it is the agency heads who must deliver the outcomes efficiently."

King points out that Oregon's leading agency directors are using the new law to focus their organizations and resources on citizen outcomes, moving away from a legacy of reaction. They are using data to fend off the latest constituent story or urban myth so they can do the right thing.

While there is little doubt that government must become more efficient and no doubt that the legislative branch can provide some powerful enabling nudges in the right direction, efficient government lies in the hands of the professional managers. But unless those managers take the lead and stop reacting, there's no chance we'll be able to continue to afford business as usual.