In Search of “What Works”

A popular book from the 1980s chronicled the strategies of successful companies. Government leaders today are on a similar quest for effectiveness.
by | July 29, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

One of the hot business books of the 1980s was In Search of Excellence, which chronicled the strategies of successful companies. Government leaders today are on a similar quest for effectiveness.

It can be hard to gather a crowd in D.C. during the summer. So it is notable that an SRO crowd of more than 200 participants attended a "Doing What Works" conference on July 27, put on by the Center for American Progress.

The Doing What Works project promotes efficiency and effectiveness in the federal government through better program design, and by boosting productivity and enhancing transparency and performance measurement. It featured an impressive lineup of speakers, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan (an Ash Center Innovations Award winner), Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jeffrey Zients and Chancellor of the D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee.

The keen interest among public officials is driven by concern. Not only is confidence in government institutions near an all-time low, but that lack of confidence stems from a perceived lack of results. The American people are in search of excellence, and they haven't been seeing enough of it from Washington.

The results of a major new poll by the Center for American Progress show that America's lack of confidence in government is more related to perceptions of performance than to political ideology. The most interesting finding is that the Millennials are our most pro-government generation.

Several themes emerged during the event. Secretary Donovan emphasized that even in hard times government's investment in "overhead" must continue. He has established a Transformation Initiative Fund to foster program metrics, research, demonstrations and technical assistance.

Secretary Locke has insisted on defining success and measuring it across his disparate agencies. One of his goals is to reduce the time it takes to get a patent to 12 months or less.

Deputy Secretary of Education Anthony Miller stressed aligning strategic goals across all program areas, and encouraging low-risk communication between career staff and political appointees. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Call me Arne" program, in which the he has made it a point to connect with the rank and file staff, has gotten rave reviews.

Much of this isn't new. But there does appear to be a renewed focus on using management tools to drive efficiency.

Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Bill Corr announced a new website,, that provides access by ZIP code to health insurance information and quotes, and will soon offer pricing as well. He wants to reduce the time to hire new staff to forty-five days, and has a competition going among his agencies.

After lunch, the attendees chose one of three subjects for a DeepDive, a structured brainstorming and prototyping process used by teams to develop solutions to specific problems. The problems given included building an innovation culture within federal agencies, how to craft policies and programs that actually work and advice to the Office of Management and Budget.

After reassembling in plenary session, Sir Michael Barber, head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit under Tony Blair and author of Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain's Public Services, noted that the skills that get governments elected are not those required for governing, and that events get in the way of the best laid plans. A continuing focus on delivering results -- also known as "deliverology," is required.

Virginia Sen. Warner said that the Congress makes some agency and departmental coordination problems worse through the proliferation of committees and subcommittees. He added performance measurement and increasing efficiency in government would, sadly, never be highlighted in the media.

Michelle Rhee discussed the challenges of trying to design and implement systematic improvements for the long term, and noted that shareholder engagement is not the ultimate goal: If you're trying to make changes, eventually some groups will be unhappy. Britain's Barber then said, "Buy-in is a byproduct of success!"

The day ended as Sen. Warner said, "Never be afraid to ask, 'Why?'"

This brought to my mind Robert F. Kennedy's famous paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw, "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" The Doing What Works project is doing both, asking the tough questions in search of better, more effective government.