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Smaller Government, Better Government?

by Timothy J. Clark |

Exit polls from the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential election asked voters whether the government should do more to solve problems or whether it’s doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. In all, 51% of the voters polled indicated that the government is already doing too much, while 43% felt it should do more. A government that is expected to do less does not necessarily cost less and may in fact cost more as spending is shifted to balance political priorities.

The obvious challenge in meeting the expectation for doing less with “more or less” is the lack of a national and/or bi-partisan commitment to what government should (and should not) be doing, including support for the cost of doing it. If you calculate how many votes the winning political party received as a percentage of all the eligible voters (whether or not they voted) for each presidential election since 1960 and then average those percentages, the winning political party averaged 31% of the votes from all the eligible voters. Since the federal government provides the required services for all citizens, a challenge for the government is to provide a constancy of purpose with systems that produce results that satisfy all citizens.

I became a contributing author at FedSmith.com in May 2011. The motivation for me was taking advantage of the opportunity to share the knowledge and insight I have gained (as a government employee in both a civilian and military capacity) during my efforts to improve the quality and reduce the cost of government. Through article comments and emails, readers have shared their frustrations with what can be a corrupt bureaucratic management system, which can pose the greatest barrier to providing quality service.

Quality Management

When government employees understand the capability and constraints of the system in which they work, they can either leave government service or develop coping strategies to justify their continued employment. Coping strategies include accepting the status quo, improving the system from within in their role as an employee and supporting change to the system in their role as a citizen and as a member of the fourth branch of government (i.e., We the People).

An existing law that gives federal employees working in and on the system the opportunity to make a positive difference is the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) of 1982. The law requires the development of controls or checks that employees use to provide assurance that the organization is doing the right things. FMFIA requirements are managed through some form of Managers’ Internal Control Program (MICP).

Depending on the degree of bureaucracy within the organization (which includes the level of fear associated with challenging the status quo), feedback from an objective and honest review may not be provided, accepted or well received. Dr. W. Edwards Deming reinforced the importance of driving out fear in Point 8 of his 14 Points for Management.

An assessment of the management environment, as described by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the publication Internal Control Management and Evaluation Tool, would provide insight on the capabilities of the respective organizational culture to drive out the fear that prevents optimum performance.

The FMFIA holds individuals and agencies accountable for establishing controls and systems that provide reasonable assurance that three objectives are achieved:

  • Effectiveness and efficiency of operations
  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
  • Reliability of financial reporting

Another more universal term for ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of operations is quality management. Quality management includes a robust discipline involving quality assurance, control and improvement. This discipline has evolved since WWII and is practiced worldwide.

Doing the Right Things Right

The terms effectiveness and efficiency are part of the language associated with quality, but they are rarely defined or understood in context of systemic improvement.

Effectiveness results from doing the right things. An organization identifies and documents the right things in its vision, values, strategic plans and results or outcomes. The role of “leadership” is to ensure that there is sustained improvement in producing the results expected by stakeholders.

Efficiency results from doing things right. The right things must align with the respective missions and include providing products and services (i.e., outputs) at the level of quality expected by stakeholders.

Ensuring efficiency falls within the realm of management. Conformance to the expectation to do less with “more or less” can be met by assessing productivity. Productivity is the ratio of inputs (resources/budgets) to outputs (products/services delivered).

Within the military, a complementary concept for providing “services” is performing individual, collective and universal tasks that meet the expectations of the respective commanders. In support areas, the expectations include supporting the commander in making resourced-based decisions supported by cost benefit analyses. Given that resources are finite, improved efficiencies contribute to combat effectiveness by ensuring the warfighter is provided with the right level of support at the right time.

Managing variability—i.e., the gap between the ideals identified in the vision and the values in the actual situation—is the “What’s new?” for managing performance. I’ve routinely reinforced this theme in my previous articles such as “Managing Variability in Thrift Savings Plans.”

Dr. Deming estimated that a lack of knowledge of the basics required to manage variability result in situations where the majority of changes made by management result in no improvement. In relation to the FMFIA, I would contend that decisions not to develop the basic knowledge needed to manage variability would represent a significant and/or material weakness. A material weakness is a condition that would not prevent or detect a misstatement in the agency’s annual Statement of Assurance (SoA).

FMFIA Challenge: What, How and Why

Among the implementation challenges of the FMFIA is that it has often been considered more of a paperwork exercise than useful guidance that requires continuous performance improvement from each employee. From an individual perspective, the law requires documented evidence to support the answers to three questions:

  • What do you do?
  • How well are you doing it?
  • Why are you doing it?

FMFIA requires the agency director to summarize the answers to these questions for all employees in the SoA. Accomplishments reflected in the SoA are substantiated with supporting detail derived from the assessments of internal controls (checks). There should be a correlation between this statement and individual performance plans and appraisals, including any associated performance bonuses.

Posting the SoA and the relevant supporting details on a website, including the outputs, costs and outcomes (results), would provide a baseline that citizens could use to assess progress and productivity on meeting expectations. Performance trends would also provide feedback on an agency’s commitment to continuous improvement.

The annual SoA also would provide an opportunity for organizations to benchmark their performance and respective management operating systems with other organizations. An excellent example of an organization that has incorporated the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence into its management operating system is the Veterans Affairs (VA) organization. The VA recently received “the highest rating ever recorded by the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index.”

An audit of an SoA using the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence provides an alternative method for assessing the quality of an organization’s MICP. Again, internal controls are nothing more than the checks that employees need to make to ensure systems are producing the right results expected by stakeholders.

A Way Ahead

Government employees can and are required to improve the system from within. Fortunately, these responsibilities are supported by the FMFIA of 1982.

As government employees, we should support the annual assessment of internal controls and help ensure the appropriate checks are developed and applied. This will help ensure that our organizations are doing the right things.

As citizens, we must support changing the system. We should encourage agencies to post their SoAs and supporting details on their websites. This will support the President’s guidance on providing transparency. It also provides the opportunity to educate stakeholders on the value provided by the agency and the opportunity to provide feedback on the quality and costs of the services. This could encourage more people to get involved by participating in national elections to support a commitment in working toward developing a more perfect union.

And finally, as more people become aware on the value and potential of the FMFIA, we should help our organizations assess their respective management operating systems using a “best-in-class” framework such as the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. Using a common operating framework throughout all of government in association with the FMFIA will provide a needed strategy for meeting the expectations of all stakeholders. The result may be an answer for addressing the challenge of getting better results with less government.

Author's Disclaimer: The views expressed in his articles are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

© 2014 Timothy J. Clark. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent of Timothy J. Clark.

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About the Author

Timothy J. Clark

Timothy J. Clark is a federal employee with over 27 years of service in the federal civil service and is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He served over four years on active duty since September 11, 2001. His book, Success through Quality, Support Guide for the Journey to Continuous Improvement was published by the America Society for Quality in 1999.

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