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Low and Slow: The Process of Reforming Government

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Barbequing is best done low and slow. Reforming government, on the other hand, is much more like cooking with a Chinese wok -- a hot fire, fearless execution, and constant mixing and scrambling ingredients in super-heated oil.

If you were asked to make a personal investment in an organization, that promised to reform and recover from a red ink balance sheet, would you accept an investment plan that would take 10 years, billions of dollars, with the odds of success below 25 percent?

No? That's the average price to reform a single government business process -- not all of government in total, not even a core mission function.

As a taxpayer, you ask yourself, is this a wise investment strategy for my tax dollars? No? Well, that's the exact strategy every American taxpayer funds each day.

Real innovation is spontaneous -- it is not expected, constructed, or invited. It just shows up -- like smart phones, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, and hybrid cars. Reformed business models like Wal-Mart, Costco, Amazon, and CNN disrupt the very core of their industries. They often fill a vacuum we didn't even know we had. When they do, they revolutionize industries, abolish jobs, and shift power -- all disruptively. No low and slow there. That's why it is foolhardy to expect real innovation from the federal government.

What we can ask, however, is that the feds are able to reform based upon the adoption of real innovation elsewhere. For example, government needs a new model to deliver services to citizens and cut costs in a dramatic way. This innovation has expertly been done by Wal-Mart, which has an estimated 300,000 more employees than the federal civilian government. It has managed to reach consumers in very small numbers and disaggregated locations. It delivers products and services at a low cost by capitalizing on its supply chain prowess, logistics management, and consumer reach.

By adopting the Wal-Mart, model, the feds could break away from their current business process in which its buying power and procurement speed is lost. Instead, the government insists each organization's own contracts shop launches individual request for proposals (RFPs) that take years to complete -- even though that very commercial product is already listed (and price negotiated) by the General Services Administration through the Federal Supply Schedule. Not only is the Federal Supply Schedule the one place where the massive purchasing power of the government has true leverage, a purchase can occur in a matter of days instead of years.

Wal-Mart also delegates authority down to individual stores so that local consumer needs can be more fully addressed. The government, in contrast, spends most of its headcount on oversight of its own employees and its contractors or each other. Delegation, even to the most highly compensated executives, is non-existent. Whether it is hiring, purchasing, financial controls, information technology, workforce management, budgeting, real estate, equipment, or logistics, the executive is rendered helpless by an army of administrative minions with all the authority and none of the accountability.

Then there are the $700 hammer examples waved around like looming jail sentences to ensure fear replaces progress. For federal workers, there is no upside to taking risks. To quote Murphy's Laws, "Don't ever be the first, don't ever be the last, and don't ever volunteer for anything."

Embodying this principle is an iconic quote in a Sept. 18 article posted on Politico.com. The CIO of the Department of State, regarding cloud computing, said, "We're sitting back and waiting since we are a security agency. We don't want to be one of the early adopters. We want to be a follower -- but we do want to comply with OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and put our toes out in the water."

Of course, this assertion of having unique security requirements runs directly counter to the fact that the federal government itself is responsible for one of the biggest security breaches in modern computing history. Further, in any given federal agency, IT security is already outsourced to contractors. As the old saying goes, "No one ever got fired buying IBM."

Speaking of IBM, it remains one of the top players in what has been characterized as the "federal IT cartel." As reported in Infosec Island in July 2011, Vivek Kundra, then Chief Information Officer of the United States at OMB, declared, "We almost have an IT cartel within federal IT," consisting of "very few companies" which dominate federal IT budgets "because they understand the procurement process better than anyone else . . . not because they provide better technology."

When Kundra announced his summer departure from the position, he asked this question: "How do we get some of the most innovative companies, the most innovative people, to actually come in and compete for federal contracts?"

Kundra's question is no different than those asked by numerous private sector technology leaders, who have long complained that the federal process for contracting information technology services is dominated by a few large companies and is too restrictive to allow the kind of rapid implementation of innovative solutions offered by smaller organizations.

Cloud computing is estimated to be able to save the government billions in operating costs. The actual issue isn't about the merits of cloud computing versus security because cloud computing security still has to meet federal standards. What the contest is really about is a "rice bowl" issue -- whether parochial interests can be set aside in favor of the good of the agency. It's about taking a risk by a handful of people who come from a culture of fear.

This leads to another example. The Office of Personnel Management recently decided to "insource" its Monster-hosted job board, USAJobs. Insourcing is a term of art for "having people on our payroll do it." OPM's mystifying explanation? To have USAJobs be "by government, for government."

To do this, they hired 19 programmers. This is more developers than were used to start up Google, Craigslist, eBay, or Facebook. OPM took the Monster screens, screen-by-screen, and rewrote the code behind each screen. After two years, they have arrived at a product that looks exactly like the Monster version -- albeit with less functionality than the Monster version -- and spent a whopping $20 million on this copycat product.

Each year, OPM taxes every other federal agency to generate the princely sum of $13 to $15 million to use this website to post jobs. With the cost of insourcing USAJobs, OPM is now raising the tax on job postings a whopping 19 percent and no statutory or regulatory base exists to support the original tax or its increase.

OPM's "mandate" to collect fees for posting open positions on USAJobs is based purely on a 1970s regulation that requires federal agencies to publicly post job opportunities so that federal employees who are laid off can see opportunities to rejoin the workforce. Years of morphing and decades of pressure from OPM created the belief USAJobs posting is not only required but on any other platform is improper. They regulate the agencies they provide this "service" to, so the fear quotient is high.

In the middle of all this, LinkedIn has risen as the superpower for job seekers. Better than posting your résumé on a big job board or going to a single site and sifting through tens of thousands of potential postings, you can network to find real job opportunities through connecting with people in your industry who you know or know about you.

More importantly, social networking is free. It's free, focused, and relies on people with the same expertise and skills that you have for referrals and information exchange. And it has the benefit of completely satisfying the public notice posting requirement. But moving from USAJobs to social networking is not welcome at OPM, even though it would save hundreds of millions over the next decade.

Why? Because that move represents a risk to OPM's business model, funding, and employment base.

Back to the 10 years, billions, and 25 percent success rate (these statistics are based on Government Accountability Office reports) -- 10 years gets you past a two-term presidency with all those pesky politically appointed change agents standing in the way of the status quo.

Billions ensures that sufficient economic dependencies are created to keep people on public and private payrolls regardless of the result. The one-year budget cycle ensures funds are doled out with the expectation they will be fully expended before the end of the fiscal year.

Oliver North captured this philosophy best during the Iran-Contra hearings when he said that since the government issued him a shredder, he assumed he was expected to use it. Federal agencies are expected to fully deploy all funds awarded, and this is what makes a 25 percent success rate irrelevant. What is relevant is the full expenditure of funds, plus a guaranteed pipeline of funds in future years to preserve employment and a way of life.

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin noted in their 2010 investigative series, "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State," that there is a reason the Census Bureau reports that six of the top ten wealthiest counties in the United States are all nestled around Washington, D.C.

That's what makes real reform of the federal government so difficult. "Low and slow" change works great for everyone but the taxpayers and recipients of government benefits and services.

Linda E. Brooks Rix is co-CEO of Avue Technologies. Founded in 1983, Avue Technologies has pioneered the technology of smaller, better government. The company provides the public sector with integrated technology and service solutions that dramatically increase enterprise-wide visibility and management effectiveness, workforce productivity, and manager and worker satisfaction. In the fight against "business-as-usual" in Washington, Avue helps power "business-as-unusual." Avue is a privately-held company headquartered in Tacoma, Washington and with offices in Washington, D.C.