Raise Government Effectiveness

Government is being asked to deliver more and better services for the American people, yet tighter budgets will limit resources and capacity. Squaring this circle is not impossible. New technologies and ways of doing business can help government do more with less, but only if leaders are bold.

Innovation in government lags. In 2010, Peter Orszag, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that “closing the information technology gap” was critical to making government more efficient and responsive. He cited a failed $600 million effort to develop a handheld computer for census field workers, causing them to go back to pen and paper.

For over a century technology has aided government. Counting the 1890 census would have taken eight years by hand, but a new mechanical tabulating machine using punch cards did it in one year. In 1905, a commission chartered by President Teddy Roosevelt urged that the U.S. Treasury Department buy adding machines.

Today, advanced business systems deliver information in seconds. This is how Amazon and Wal-Mart became so efficient. A U.S. Army integrated logistics system uses near-real-time information to cut costs and speed deliveries. Yet many agencies have thousands of isolated and outdated business systems. Retirement processing for federal employees is still done largely by hand, resulting in delays of months in providing full pensions.

Sweeping ideas for improvement have been offered. In 2010, a group of technology CEOs presented the White House with a plan to save the federal government $1 trillion over a decade, by consolidating supply chains and computing and using advanced analytics to reduce fraud and error.

Innovation in government, however, requires pragmatism. To a greater extent than the private sector, the public sector has varied missions, diverse stakeholders, and conflicting interests. Agencies fearful of losing control can oppose giving up their own specialized support. Employees familiar with old technology may resist new. Agencies that adopt shared services may retrain or not have the fortitude to eliminate redundant employees.

Nonetheless, as budgets shrink, the demand for cost-saving, performance-enhancing capabilities will grow. Progress is being made. Agencies are eliminating over a thousand redundant data centers. They are beginning to buy lower-cost, more responsive cloud-computing services. The federal government is better leveraging its buying power to drive down procurement costs. Agencies realize they need to upgrade the skills of employees, their most valuable asset.

In some dynamic areas, such as cyber security, the public and private sectors each have unique capabilities. Careful information sharing can make both sectors stronger.

Politics sometimes pose obstacles to boosting productivity. They hinder the closing of underutilized military or other federal facilities. Congress has halted competitions between public- and private-sector teams for contracts to perform government work of a kind also done commercially, even though savings tend to be about one-third no matter who wins. Yet reforming government so that it can be more effective and responsive should be an area where broad bipartisan support exists.

People increasingly expect from government the ease and quality of service they enjoy in their private lives. Internet and mobile access ought to make it easier for them to engage. If they can conduct secure online banking via a smart phone, why not interact this way with government?

Technology and ways of doing business are changing rapidly. Creative thinking is required about how they can help government do more for less. We have to expand our mindsets. How should government better serve the public? For example, by enabling more taxpayers to file online directly with the IRS?

A whole new realm of citizen engagement awaits. Smart phones, tablets, and trusted identities will enable people to deal with government anytime, anywhere. Companies, civic organizations, and charities will be better able to inform and represent their views to officials, helping them perform but also applying pressure if they do not. In natural disasters, smart phones often save lives by guiding responders to victims.

Making government more productive should not be divisive politically. Everyone has an interest in squeezing more performance out of each taxpayer dollar. Yet the Pew Research Center finds that two-thirds of Americans believe that “when something is run by government it is usually inefficient and wasteful.”

It’s time to change this mindset as well. Building public confidence in government will help political leaders find pragmatic solutions to vexing issues such as how to reduce deficit spending.

In recent years the advent of e-mail and the Internet have revolutionized government productivity. More can be done. Strong and sustained leadership—as Roosevelt showed a century ago in advancing civil service reform—will be vital to turning promising ideas into better government. The painful fiscal decisions our political leaders must make in the months ahead will, we believe, quicken public interest in making each taxpayer dollar go farther.

Carly Fiorina is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Carly Fiorina