Change the Lens

An open letter to President-elect Obama (and all other new government leaders) on the best ways to improve government.
by | December 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

This year's election season generated a lot of enthusiasm from all sides. The record-breaking voter registrations and the long lines at the polls are positive signs of an active democracy. The pundits are saying this election will drive renewed interest in public service the likes we haven't seen since the 1960s. I hope that is true. The work of government is noble, necessary and too often thankless. But we can't renew interest in public service until we reform the perception of public servants.

Government employees have been an easy target for far too long. Imagine how well a company would perform if the employees were continually berated by the investors, the board of directors and the customers. Imagine how inspired you would be if you were told that your life's work was "the problem" instead of the solution. While you alone can't change the attitude of taxpayers and elected officials, you can at least assure the employees that the CEO is supportive of them and their important mission.

Over the next four years, people will be approaching you with any number of initiatives to improve government. Many of these initiatives will be directed at improving the performance of the people of government. On the surface, they may sound well-meaning, but I challenge you to search your heart and ask what assumptions these initiatives make about people. Through what lens do they view the work of government? Are they assuming government employees are looking to avoid work and responsibility? Are they assuming that government employees are motivated by money? Do they assume that the customers of government are all out to cheat the system?

As you embark on your new administration, I challenge you to change the lens. To start with a fresh perspective. To see government employees as they truly are -- hard working, creative, mission-driven, passionate people who want to make a difference in the world.

With that perspective in mind, what can you do to radically improve the performance of government?

1. Focus on the systems of government, not the people. There is a commonly held perception that government employees are slow, unresponsive and inefficient. But I ask you, if you fired every government employee and replaced them with all new people, would anything change? Maybe for a moment, but it wouldn't be long before the same problems would show up again.

The problems we face in government are truly systemic. They are rooted in the systems of government: the rules, policies and procedures that dictate what is to be produced, for whom and how it can and cannot be made. Whether it's the mechanisms we use to distribute food stamps, to protect children from abuse, to ensure health care for seniors or to respond to natural disasters, these systems are often slow, inefficient and unresponsive.

But nobody set out to make them that way. They have been calcified by years of CYA steps introduced to eliminate "waste, fraud, and abuse." The people are not slow, inefficient and unresponsive. The systems are. Yet we are forced to endure program after program geared toward motivating and incentivizing employees to be better. My favorite management guru, Peter Scholtes, put it this way: "All of the empowered, motivated, teamed-up, self-directed, incentivized, accountable, reengineered, and reinvented people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system. When the system is functioning well, these other things are all just foofaraw. When the system is not functioning well, these things are still only empty, meaningless twaddle."

Peter is pretty blunt, but his point is right on. The people of government are amazing and can do amazing things. But they are mired in systems beyond their control.

For the next four years, I urge you to focus your attention on improving the systems of government.

2. Focus on actually improving performance. The last thing we need in government is more measurement. We have endured countless programs, buzzwords and forms aimed at increased accountability. Each of these initiatives has created mounds of paperwork and lengthy arguments about the difference between a goal and an objective. What they have not done is dramatically improve performance. As the author Peter Block has noted, "Measurement has the same impact on human behavior as meteorology does on the weather." Measurement only tells you where you are and where you have been. It doesn't tell you anything about where you should go or how you are going to get there.

Further, measurement does little to capture the hearts and minds of employees. If you want to tap into the passion and creativity of the government workforce, I beg you to not bore them with more measurement and planning. Inspire them instead to develop and pursue big ideas. We don't need another performance-measurement system. We need a performance-improvement system. A system to improve the performance of systems.

For the next four years, I urge you to focus on how we can revitalize and improve the systems of government -- not just produce more benchmarks and measures. How can we rewrite the policies, rules and procedures that govern what we produce, who we produce it for and how we can produce it? As we seek to revitalize our transportation infrastructure, our health care system and our social programs, let's work equally as hard revitalizing the systems of government that support those lofty aims.

3. Engage the hearts and minds of the people who are part of the system to improve the system. Imagine that you are the shareholder of large company and a new CEO has been hired. When asked how she was going to make the company great, she responds, "I'm going to form a blue ribbon commission comprised of retired government executives and professors, as well as consultants who have never worked in our sector. We are going to have this esteemed panel fly over our factories at about 30,000 feet and then using their expertise tell us how we can be more efficient and effective."

What would you do? I'd sell my shares as fast as possible.

It seems every inauguration is quickly followed by a blue ribbon commission. At the end of the day, what do we get from these commissions? A thick report that basically tells people to stop using cell phones and cars, to automate everything that isn't automated, and to centralize everything that is decentralized (until the next commission which will advocate decentralizing everything this commission centralized).

You can't improve government by looking at it from 30,000 feet. The problems with government aren't visible at that level. Only when you open up the roof and see the systems inside can you find the opportunities. Improving government is a battle that is won on the ground, not through the air. And the best people to fight that battle are the people on the ground -- the employees and the people they serve. They know the policies and the rules. They also know the difficulties customers experience complying with those rules. They get the phone calls and complaints and have to continually fix the problems these dysfunctional systems cause.

We don't need more government-wide reform initiatives. What we need is a laser-like focus on improving the critical things government does.

For the next four years, I urge you to tackle some big projects -- to remake the most vital systems of government -- and to staff those projects with the people who know those systems the best.

Our nation faces enormous challenges. It will take extraordinary feats from all parts of America to meet these challenges. I am certain we will meet those obstacles, and I know that public servants will be a big part of our bright future. People rise to the expectations we have of them. I hope you will have the highest expectations of public servants, and I trust you will not be disappointed.