Agencies are constantly being asked to do more with less or to innovate with less. But some senior agency officials are done using that cliché.
Instead, the idea that is starting to take hold across government is be smarter with less.
“I always say, we have to do the right thing with less. This notion that we will do everything that we do today, we are just going to find a way to do it with less says that everything is equally important, and we will just find ways to do everything we currently do in our portfolio and do it cheaper. It’s absolutely the wrong way to think about it in my mind,” said Rafael Borras, the undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security. “We’ve got to be able to begin to make choices that require discipline to say, ‘what are the high value add? Where is the low risk associated with the investment? And where you have very low value, very high risk, dump it.’ Can I get more plain that that? Dump it.”
Borras, who spoke as part of a panel discussion sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton Thursday in Washington, said this approach is true not just within any one agency, but across the government. He said there are programs that need to be ended or severely rescoped.
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DHS isn’t alone in rethinking how it expends resources on programs.
Federal officials say the budget environment — with or without sequestration — is leading agencies to come to grips with the idea that no matter how much they cut, no matter how much they work to become more efficient, they still will not have enough people or money to get everything done.
Carrots, sticks or data
Despite the fact that Congress has given DHS ever-increasing budgets over the last decade and the agency didn’t have to worry about furloughs in the face of sequestration, Borras said changing how employees think about programs is more important than ever.
The ability to change behavior can be achieved through carrots and sticks, the panel said.
The current budget environment almost precludes agencies from cash incentives, and the panel said disincentives are less optimal.
But the other way, according to Thad Allen, the former head of the Coast Guard and now executive vice president at Booz Allen, is through data.
Allen said putting data out within the agency and to the public is a powerful way to get people to change behavior.
Borras said DHS has been focusing on improving its data for the last few years. He said when he came to DHS in 2010, the agency had a 30 percent data accuracy rate. Now, Borras said, it’s closer to 80 percent, which lets senior officials make better, more informed decisions.
Borras said along with data, agencies need discipline to make tough decisions. DHS has put such a discipline in place over the last few years.
“We do have a much more robust acquisition review, investment review process,” he said. “So, while of course I would love to see more programs within the components of DHS make those choices themselves — and they are beginning to do that — but more often than not, they are coming up to the acquisition review board and we are looking across the broad spectrum of portfolios and saying, ‘you either really ought to look at the original basis for this program, or you ought to work with a similar or related program…and look at combining those two programs into one rather than having two separate programs, because we can’t afford it and we really want a common architecture when we build out this.'”
Clear strategy, defined outcomes
The Defense Department is facing similar challenges as DHS, but on a grander scale.
Beth McGrath, the deputy chief management officer for DoD, said part of the discipline is having a clear strategy to achieve defined outcomes.
“It really is about how do we optimize the investment of the organization to accomplish the mission we are asked to accomplish,” she said. “A great way of really putting everything on the table is actually putting everything on the table in a transparent way so you have a leadership forum that says, ‘What do we as an organization need to accomplish? How do we get there? What investments are we doing to make?’ It will mean we will have to shed some of the stuff we already have.”
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McGrath said her office has focused on consolidating and improving DoD’s business systems for several years. In September, DoD overhauled its investment review board to look at business capability lifecycle approach for all investments worth more than $1 million.
McGrath said the goal is to establish a “more simplified business environment.”
“I want to invest into the future. But in order to do that, I need to shed some of the status quo,” she said. “We tell people they will not be left without capability, but we are replacing some of this old, antiquated with the new.”
McGrath said agencies need to set dates for when the old capabilities will be turned off. DoD now is at the point where if strategy and outcomes are not clear, cutting resources to programs will break things.
Ending program overlap
Part of this effort to be smarter with less is for agencies to look at shutting down or merging duplicative programs.
In each budget request, the Obama administration has submitted options to Congress to get rid of redundant programs. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office has submitted reports to Congress and the White House detailing where they found overlap.
Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general of the U.S., said Congress actually is making progress to reduce duplication among programs.
“We’ve included every year in our overlap and duplication report a scorecard of how well the executive branch and Congress have acted on recommendations we’ve made to both branches,” he said. “This past year we reported some. A notable example for Congress is they allowed one of the ethanol tax credits to expire that we said duplicated the renewable fuel standard. That tax credit had about $5 billion in revenue loss. So they’ve acted.”
Dodaro also highlighted the Moving Ahead for Progress (MAP-21) Act that consolidated more than 100 transportation programs and set more performance goals for federal, state and local levels as another example of where lawmakers tried to reduce duplicative programs.
Additionally, House and Senate lawmakers have introduced bills to consolidate the employment training programs.
Dodaro said GAO also has received a lot more inquiries from a many more members of Congress because of the fiscal pressures.
Without Congressional help, agencies need to understand what systems they have and the status of those programs and then make decisions about priorities.
McGraths said DoD is doing that by applying its enterprise architecture and data standards to make sure there are apples to apples comparisons.
Measuring program risk
At DHS, Borras said they are using an enterprise risk view across major acquisition program to create a common language and place to come from when reviewing programs.
“It really was about creating an environment within all of DHS to get people to recognize we needed to be focused on risk. We needed to look at our acquisition programs as investments, a very important distinction because these are the investments the taxpayers make in us to be able to deliver, in our case, homeland security benefits. We should act as stewards of those investments,” he said. “By creating this enterprise risk view, we are able to think about what are the factors that contribute to a very elevated risk scenario and what can you do to mitigate and manage that. And how do you drive the probability of success up?”
The risk management approach has been in place for about a year. It uses data to measure the risk and value of programs, and if a program becomes too risky and less valuable, there’s a strong case to end it.
Borras said the BioWatch Generation 3 program is an example of how the risk framework is helping DHS make better programmatic decisions.
DHS halted the program and is reassessing its requirements. Borras said the framework helped show the BioWatch Generation 3’s requirements and expectations needed updating.
GAO’s Dodaro said agencies need to not only look across their enterprise, but also across the government for more opportunities to reduce duplicative programs. He said many of the administration’s cross-agency priority goals mirror programs on GAO’s high-risk list.
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