Smaller Government, Better Government?

By on December 11, 2012 in Leadership, News

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 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.

© 2016 Timothy J. Clark. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Timothy J. Clark.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark, is the author of Success Through Quality, Support Guide for the Journey to Continuous Improvement. He retired from the federal government with over 30 years of service. He is also a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army and retired at the rank of Colonel with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

He is currently the Director of the Deming Application Network that supports leaders in transitioning to the application of better methods that will immediately result in higher levels of performance.

12 Replies

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  1. Jon-Michael Parker says:

    Many of the comments before me wine about the symptoms of
    the problem Mr. Clarks article is actually addressing.   He is
    bringing to life and shedding light on how to answer the problems that we as a
    nation have created ourselves.     Understanding
    how to do more with less starts by understanding what quality is on the front
    line.  Be it the welfare line, school line,
    or assembly line.  

    Mr. Clark also quotes Dr. Deming’s point about driving out
    fear in an organization.  Not an easy
    thing to do sometimes working within a Government organization.  That’s where Leadership comes in.  The knowledge to fix any problem is never
    found in a boardroom , office, or congressional setting.  It is found where the work is done.  That’s why Mr. Clark continues to refer to
    those of us who work in Government to exercise our rights and obligations as
    ordinary citizens to work towards finding the answers.  The Japanese economic miracle began by
    understanding quality, and it was designed and orchestrated by an American.   

    If we fail to recognize this fact, we will continue to
    manage ourselves into the poorhouse.  Prosperity
    and the Poorhouse are options, be thankful we still have a choice.

    Well done Mr. Clark.  

  2. Karen says:

    My experience when management talked about effectiveness and efficiency, doing the right thing right, etc. was just talk.  What was really being said was do a lot of work fast whether it is correct or not.  I even had one manager come out and say she would rather me do 100 cases in a day with 50% wrong than 20 in a day at 100% correct.  The type work being performed was very technical and 20 cases would normally be considered outstanding until these new effective and efficiency ideas came on the scene.  My job was to determine the eligibility of an individual to receive Social Security benefits, determine the amount due, consider any extenuating factors, i.e., military, foreign work, workers’ compensation, etc, etc., etc.  That plus taking into consideration all the laws involving Social Security and any amendments to the Act.  Not a 100 /day job.  So don’t expect me to think that FMFIA has or will make a difference.

    • Timothy Clark says:

      Unfortunately, the situation you described is not unusual.   A competent assessment of internal controls would identify a management environment  that endorses poor quality and wastes resources.  As I mentioned in the article, too often, compliance with the FMFIA  is treated as a paperwork exercise.  So, do you continue to accept the status quo or work to change it?

  3. Sand says:

    As always the governments starts out to help the so call low income people. Just like starting Head Start for families that could not aford to pay for pre-kindergarden in the early years,but now we have public kindergarden in our public schools. So why are tax payers still paying for Head Start. Head Start is just a free day care now. The ones I checked into do not have certifided Teachers. This is also the same for welfare started by the government to help short term, but families make a living off of it.  You might say the Federal government pays young girls to have babies by giving them free medical free housing and free day care. Now the government wants to pay for abortion when the girl decides she does not want to the baby. In what I call the so call good old days if a girl got pregenet she got married or the parents had to pay the bill. Not the tax payers. They did not go to school pregenent with other children . When my daughter graduated high school she had a friend that had two children and was pregenent at time of graduation. My daughter asked her why, her commit was I get more money from the welfare (government) and her auntie takes care of the kids. This is the kind of children we are raising now to live off of the government. I know several women with two to five children never been married. Children by different fathers that live better than I do. They have brick homes provided by the government paying less thas a  $ 100.00 dollars a month and living with men but not reporting it. I myself want to pay my bills and live in a double wide. So I belive the GOVERNMENT need to relook at what it is doing to our young people by making them live for government help instead of having pride of doing it on their own.

  4. msgrowan says:

    The fact that in the 30 years after passage of the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) it has yet to be effectively implemented speaks volumes for the bureaucratic inertia and resistance to such well-intentioned innovations.  I think it would be a safe to assert that even knowledge of the existence of the FMFIA mandates is miniscule at best in Federal senior management ranks, especially outside of agencies’ financial/budgetary functions, and even there it is obviously being observed more in form than in substance.  The GAO or CBO – or together jointly – should consider conducting a study as to why the U.S. legal code is replete with such widely ignored “good government” mandates, and why it is that they go on being essentially consigned to an Orwellian “memory hole.”

    • David_weinstock says:

       i agree with you, but the thing is that these laws are managed by people chosen by the management of each agency. even if the management knew about these laws, they would never appoint someone who would find fault with the person who appointed them to a job with promotion potential. this is the kind of well intended thing that increases the bureaucracy and inertia and it is not limited to government. the guy who draws dilbert worked for the phone company, not the government.  this comment may seem incoherent, but changing the management practices of a giant juggernaut is like throwing pennies on a railroad track.

  5. steve5656546346 says:

    Whether or not the government should be larger is not our decision to make:  despite the election results.

    Reason?  Reality is non-negotiable, and we can’t vote it away.  We are going bankrupt.

    So, our government will, in fact, be smaller:  but probably not until AFRTER we are totally bankrupt…

    • Soonershooter says:

      at which time, there will be a tiny military, and even smaller numbers of first-responders, limited health care, terrible roads except for maybe major freeways and interstates, hyperinflation and even more of a barbell income structure…10 % rich and 90% poor and hopeless.

  6. Soonershooter says:

    how about govt agencies that dont overlap? Or areas that hte feds just shouldnt be involved in?  the number of agencies, sub-agencies and quasi-agencies is stoopid, many are needed, but a  lot are complete crap.  Not advocating wholesale RIF’s, but over time (2-5 years) a lot of this needs to go away, if only to stop the nanny state intrusion. 


    And, yes, I know many agencies are very important, I dont want the food inspectors also inspecting nuclear reactors…

    • grannybunny says:

      Right now, there aren’t even enough of either food or nuclear reactor inspectors to get everything adequately inspected.

    • Retired Benefits Specialist says:

      I challenge any member of the House of Representatives to come up with just ONE billion dollars currently being spent within THEIR district that they DON’T want the Federal government to pay for.  (Senators don’t count, as they represent and are voted upon by the whole state).
      It can be road improvements, farm subsidies, money for schools, or food or nuclear reactor inspectors, etc. but it has to come out of THEIR OWN district. 
      Everyone wants to cut money from somewhere else, but we are indeed going bankrupt, and who better to know where to cut money form a Congressional District than the representative from that district?
      Right there, this would save over 300 billion a year.
      I know, this will NEVER happen, because we are all selfish and want to cut the mmilitary base in ANOTHER state……

  7. Badfed says:

    We have neither a smaller or better government.  Despite some arcane law dated 1982 that no one pay’s attention to.