A (modest) management agenda for the next president

What an election season it’s been. You’d think everyone who supports a liberal view must be a communist. And everyone who supports a conservative view a fascist.

But I’m presuming that most of us — regardless of how big or small we think the federal government should be — want the government to be a good one. That means executing the laws free from political bias. Operating the procurement and grant systems objectively and free from bribes or graft. Exercising restraint and discretion in the application of power that, for many agencies, has the potential to wreck people and businesses.

A dope with a toy gun is not a Branch Davidian intent on mayhem. If someone makes a tax return error, they’re not necessarily Al Capone. Building a gazebo next to a goldfish pond probably won’t poison the regional watershed. Not every for-profit college grad gets a job as promised, but Harvard turns out its share of fails every year too, at a lot higher price at that.

Exercising discretion within a rules-based system takes mature judgment. I’ll never forget the TSA agent who dug out my cigar cutter made from a .45 magnum bullet, buried deep within a pocket of my duffel bag. I thought I’d lost it. Then I figured it really was gone. But the TSA screener knew a man’s cigar cutter when he saw it. He dropped the brass and steel object into my palm and said, “Have a safe trip!”

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Every government has flaws. But as my grandmother used to say, if everyone piled their troubles into a big heap, you’d go digging to retrieve your own. Just this week, the Turkey strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has started rounding up opposition members of the Parliament. People in Turkey are afraid to send emails with anything slightly suggestive of politics. In Venezuela, an atrocious and evil public administration has produced a nearly failed state.

We’ll be OK.

Given the big things the next administration will have to deal with, management of the federal government itself may not rise to a high consciousness level with the average citizen — except when they have to deal with the government. The last four administrations have recognized the need for constant improvement of the citizen experience. They’ve devoted people and serious policy-making to cause it to happen.

Here’s my short list of lingering problems I’ll be watching to see if the next crew takes action:

  • Fix federal hiring. Start by identifying the real issue. Does the government get the right people, only it takes too long? Does it get the wrong people, only it takes too long? Do the right people not bother to apply? How can a modern, fast process adhere to merit system principles? It shouldn’t be that hard.
  • Adopt a rational approach to outsourcing. Of course, some jobs are inherently governmental. But a ban on Circular A-76 competitions never made sense. Maybe the A-76 emphasis on cost should expand to consider what will give the best outcome.
  • Finish policies already in place. The array of IT and procurement initiatives has been dizzying — data center consolidation, cloud, mobility, cybersecurity, digital services, category management, open source, shared services, everything connected to the General Services Administration. The career people are policy-fatigued. Everything is still half-finished. The new team should look at all of this closely and avoid the temptation to toss it out and start over. Every new administration feels it’s got to pee on every shrub, but the lack of continuity on non-political operations means nothing ever quite makes it to the finish line. Just this week brought yet another reorg of part of GSA.
  • Get the patent system right once and for all. The vision of Google (we don’t pay, but we get to use content for profit by selling ads), patent trolls (we didn’t invent but we get to stop you from innovating unless you pay us) and some content creators (we control this creation way beyond ’til death do us part) are all wrong. It will require a light touch and a bipartisan approach.

Go vote!

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