The goal? Transforming government for efficiency, savings | Business Roundtable


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The goal? Transforming government for efficiency, savings

Feb 7, 2013

Business Roundtable sponsored a substance-heavy conference on "government transformation" Wednesday, featuring CEOs, political leaders, and experienced hands in government management.

The BRT-member CEOs represented were Jorge Benitez, Accenture; Mark Bertolini, Aetna; Davis Melcher, Exelis Inc.; and Matt Rose, BNSF Railway. Cosponsoring the conference was GOVERNING magazine, with top executive Cathilea Robinett capably moderating several panels.

In his welcoming remarks to the "Transforming Government for the 21st Century" conference, BRT President John Engler said  budget pressures -- think sequestration -- have elevated the case for government reorganization to create efficiencies and savings. BRT-member CEOs and the private sector can offer some lessons from their own experiences, he observed.

The companies they operate are complex, global operations. And they have learned to cut, restructure and transform themselves when necessary – whether the pressure for change comes from mergers, technology, or the realities of the competitive global marketplace.

One reason they can achieve these changes? They have the authority to make them, unlike U.S. presidents. who have lacked the ability to restructure the Executive Branch since 1984.

Danny Werfel, Controller of the Office of Management and Budget, was the opening speaker, bringing the perspective of a presidential appointee who began his OMB career as a civil servent, serving administrations of both parties. Government Executive magazine covered his speech and Q&A, really capturing the tone of the day.

The chief impediments to streamlining federal functions are “parochial stakeholder interests” and a lack of urgency among managers implementing laws and programs, U.S. Controller Danny Werfel told a business group on Wednesday.

The solutions include relying more on independent commissions in deciding how to “rightsize and reshape” government as well as “changing the culture to channel the urgency” commonly felt during a crisis into everyday situations.

The panels:

  • Transformation in the Public and Private Sectors -- Lessons for the Federal Government" featured BNSF's Rose, Exelis's Melcher, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- now at the Financial Services Roundtable -- and former Indianpols Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, now at the Harvard Kennedy School.
  • Transformation in the Federal Government: Opportunities and Challenges" with Accenture's Benitez; Bertolini of Aetna; former HUD Secretary Steve Preston; and David Walker, the former GAO Comptroller General who now leads the Comeback America Initiative.
  • View from the Senate: Legislative Oversight of Executive Organization and Management, with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)

Speakers acknowledged the obvious: Business and government are different. Companies are simply more responsive and efficient.  Beyond that, other themes recurred:

  • Executive leadership is critical. Leaders evangelize, motivate, maintain a consistency of message and action, persist in in keeping employees’ focus on the overarching goal, not the particular task they’ve been assigned (which can become a fiefdom). But executives must have the authority to make decisions and put them in into effect.
  • Shared services across agencies can achieve efficiencies and big savings, particularly in procurement reform; you want to encourage the purchase of good supplies quickly, rather than bad products through a rigorous process.
  • Rigid or protective personnel rules should be reformed so executive can reward those who do a good job and get rid of those who are not.
  • There's too much federal real estate! As Sen. Coburn noted, in fiscal year 2009, 24 federal agencies reported having more than 14,000 excess and 45,000 underutilized buildings costing more than $1.7 billion annually to operate.
  • Change often comes from action-forcing events, i.e., crises, as Pawlenty noted. (See Star-Tribune, "Pawlenty tells execs of political dysfunction.")
  • Government needs to focus more on the people it serves, i.e., customers or clients.

Business Roundtable videotaped the conference and will post highlights in the near future. We also plan a paper that summarizes the day's comments and recommendations.

From left: Jorge Benitez, Accenture; Mark Bertolini, Aetna; former HUD Secretary Steve Preston.