Does Dr. Kettl have it right?


Dr. Donald KettlDr. Donald Kettl’s essay says the federal government today is no match for the problems of the 21st century. He says government has to radically change the way it operates. Is he right? What would you want the next President to do about it?

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9 Responses to “Does Dr. Kettl have it right?”

  1. Jonathan Breul, Executive Director, The Center for The Business of Government Says:

    Welcome to our first foray into blogging and thank you for helping us begin a national dialogue about “what happens next.” We look forward to your participation in our ongoing conversation.

  2. Scott Says:

    I believe Dr. Kettl is fundamently right! Here’s the rub however: one can not talk about changing government without changing culture! I currently work as an industrial/organizational psychologist for the federal government and am conducting dissertation research on culture change/transformation in the federal government. Specifically, I am examining the link between culture and performance. While a significant amount of research has been on private sector organizations, very little has been done with public sector (federal government) organizations. Nevertheless, the evidence thus far is clear: organizational or corporate culture has a profound impact on organizational performance and effectiveness. I contend that if you want to improve performance in the government one must look at corporate culture first and foremost. The challenge is that government is largely based on Max Web’s (the “father” of Bureaucracy) premise that organizations need to be stable, predictable and routinized (because their piece parts–people–come and go) to better “serve the people.” Federal organizations have extreme difficulting “moving the battleship” because these organizational behaviors have become so deeply entrenched. Edgar Shein (“father” of organizational culture) contends that a major driver of culture is leadership–leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, the federal government has been, and I suspect will be for sometime, in a leadership crisis because so very few leaders measure up. Without good leadership, culture change will be difficult thereby resulting in an underperforming sector. My two cents worth :-)

  3. Mark Abramson, Consultant to the IBM Center for the Business of Government Says:

    Good points Scott. I agree fully with your assessment but I would add that government agencies consist of two sets of leaders: (1) political appointees, and (2) senior careerists. I think it is helpful to make a distinction between them in this discussion. For political appointees, the key is selecting the right individuals for the right position with the appropriate background and training for that position. Much has been written on this topic.

    For the career civil servant, I think they can assume more responsibility for creating positive, performance-oriented cultures within the larger organization and within their own units. They also need to be selected for their skills in running organizationsand creating effective workplaces where people want to be. My assessment is that we need to do both better recruiting and job selection for careeriests, as well as providing them with additional training and experience to be leaders within their own organizations.

  4. Mark Braly Says:

    Dr. Kettl is on the right track. Performance goals and output measurement should be the answer. They haven’t been so far, despite Dr. Kelman’s optimism. My boss at the Dept. of Defense, an assistant secretary, dismissed performance goals as “a non-starter.” Yet he never understood that his resources were being wasted for lack of clear output goals. Dr. Kelman is right that the performance movement is threatened by neglect not opposition.

    After I joined the Office of Economic Adjustment, OSD, in the early 1990s, I was amazed to learn that the agency’s main activity was inventing process. Inasmuch as our enabling legislation did not define “planning” but did confine our grant program to that, we devised an arbitrary set of definitions of planning. We argued over these rather than outcomes. Off the table was any discussion of how our financial and technical support of impacted cities could contribute to the main goal of our program: closure of excess bases as quickly and cheaply as possible.

    We had a performance bonus program, but it was awarded routinely to anyone who was not a complete screw-up. Even I got them. In my response to performance reviews I tried to show that the measures on which my performance was being judged had nothing to do with the overall goals of our program. Management could not take this in.

    I don’t really understand why it is so difficult to establish performance goals for all government agencies. Mostly we are talking about just a clear statement of what the agency is supposed to be doing with its resources.

    Upon my retirement I could only onclude that my agency has wasted all of its resources. Former DoD Assistance Secretary Bob Stone (later staff director of Al Gore’s Reinventing Government Commission) once wrote that 2/3s of what the DoD does — does not have to be done. He caused an uproar when he proposed that bookshelves of specifications for DoD construction projects be reduced to a few paragraphs of performance goals.

    Responding to Dr. Kelman’s question about how innovative people can be supported, I thought of Secretary Stone’s proposed solution. When an idea for change is going up through the levels of command, it cannot be stopped at any level before the top. Thus, the intervening reviewers can say yes, but they can’t say no.

    Also, we should not forget that one of our biggest problems is at the policy level. Can conservative elected officials and their appointees be part of the solution until they concede that government can be effective and needed?

  5. Mac Salfen Says:

    Government is reaching too far and spending too much. It should restrict itself to three areas: 1. regulatory functions, which obviously have taken a back seat if the agricultural contaminations and the Walter Reed scandal are any indication. 2. Regulate income so as to decrease or eliminate individual tax burdens and ask industry and customs to pay up. Industry would probably applaud the elimination of Social Security in favor of an employee setting aside 10% of of their income into mandatory savings bonds (with variable maturity). Government could use the bond money as additional revenue. 3. Upgrade the military to use military engineers as unbiased and pro-active civil infrastructure inspectors and disaster relief. All of which might avoid another Katrina debacle which featured poor disaster preparation, poor levee oversight, and poor evacuee care.

  6. Michael J. Novak Says:

    Dr. Kettl has it only partly right. There is indeed a “Knowledge Imperative” (term coined by Dr. Steven Else of the Center for Public-Private Enterprise. But saying there is an “Imperative” and actually doing something about it are two entirely different things.

    I may be wrong, but I am convinced that effective management of knowledge, and effective collaboration and sharing of that knowledge across government levels and functions, could have prevented the attacks of 9/11/2001, and could have reduced the impact of the hurricanes of 2005.

    Without getting too hung up on the term “Knowledge Management” or any of its offshoots, the federal government needs to be able to capture, store, transfer, and reuse its knowledge effectively and efficiently. That means more open source applications, more inter-governmental portals, and more transparency of operations and information. And because the non-federal sector does these things much better than we do, it also means getting serious about public-private partnerships, extended enterprises, and business webs.

    The Government, by definition, is a “Knowledge Organization,” and must leverage the collective knowledge of its members, partners, suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders in order to become better at making decisions, solving problems, and serving the public. And it needs to do that in collaboration with non-federal government entities, academia, non-profits, and the private sector if it wants to accomplish that leveraging with any degree of efficiency and effectiveness. That means, among other things, we need to repeal or seriously amend the obsolete Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which is a barrier to much-needed partnerships between federal and non-federal entities. It also means that the federal government is long overdue for a Chief Knowledge Officers (CKO) Council, to coordinate the management of knowledge among the levels and fucntions of government. Finally, it means that where should be created, under the auspices of the CKO Council, a robust, activist, and effective Intergovernmental Knowledge Management Working Group to identify and address issues that can be resolved by the application of knowledge-based solutions.

  7. Tyrus Clayton Says:

    Kettl and Kelman present sound advice. I would simply add to their list the need for a reformulation of our public service. There is presently an overabundance of politically appointed ideologues whose influence fosters both thoughtless behaviors and corruption.

    Civil service reform has too often been reform at the margins rather than fundamental change. I would much prefer to see
    severe limits placed on the number of political appointees allowed, coupled with development of a cadre of generalist public servants-along the lines of the British public service. That cadre would be the primary advisors to our elected officials with respect to policy formulation. In my view Performance Based government can best be fostered by highly competent
    public executives who do not have ideologically based axes
    to grind.

  8. Bob Stone Says:

    Nah, Dr Kettl is too pessimistic. The GREAT insight (at least, MY great insight) from the reinventing government effort was that government’s #1 need was better bosses. We got a top business leader to head the IRS, after a succession of tax lawyers with no management/leadership experience. Charles Rossotti turned the IRS around, with the help of many wonderful civil servants.

    The wonderful civil servants exist at every agency, even the ones whose colossal flops have made big headlines the past few years. Government needs leaders worthy of its civil servants. Leadership needs to be the first qualification for agency heads and deputies, not political connection. Surely there are plenty of Republicans with it. Dems too.

  9. John doe Says:

    As a new hire fresh out of college I agree that the federal government needs to change how it operates. I’ve never seen so much paper and toner wasted to print out manuals, slideshows and daily working documents. I’m surrounded by people that barely know what right click means, let alone know how to print duplex or edit a document using change tracking features. People need some fundamental training on how to use their resources efficiently.

    On the topic of performance, I can only hope that a move towards incentive-based pay systems will actually drive people to actually work hard and perform in the workplace. There are some good solid people out there, but they’re also covering up for a lot of lazy bums. People need to be able to be reprimanded for lack of performance, not translated or “promoted” out of the way.

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