I spent some time recently going a bit deeper into President-elect Obama's call for a Federal-level Chief Technology Officer and came to the realization that it, and the various responses by individuals and groups, strongly resemble major parts of the Clinton Administration's (specifically then-Vice President Al Gore) attempt to "Reinvent Government" (and, to be completely fair historically and politically, the 1994 Republican Party "Contract with America" that helped them sweep congressional seats wasn't any better - or worse.) History shows that while the effort led to some marginal improvements here-and-there and saved a few billion dollars that were quickly spent on something else, it really didn't accomplish very much and the results were nowhere near what the political speeches trumpeted to the electorate in that day.
As I googled and found various documents, articles, and other artifacts from those efforts, I came across an article written in February, 1995 by the late management guru Peter Drucker in The Atlantic Monthly. Dr. Drucker posits at length why "reforms" like this don't usually work, and proposed how they could do so. As with almost all of his writings, this one is well worth reading and really resonated with me.
In light of the Obama CTO proposal and Friday's (11/14/2008) news that there is little or no government oversight around the $700 billion of our money being dished out to bail out banks and insurers, Dr. Drucker's commentary, although made years ago, takes on a greater sense of urgency to reform and rightsize the federal government. Some highlights:
"There has been no lack of publicity about the Gore initiative since. Press release after press release has announced the reinvention of yet another agency or program; big conferences, one chaired by the President himself, have been convened, and any number of TV appearances made. Of all the domestic programs of the Clinton Administration, this is one of the few in which there actually have been results and not just speeches. Yet neither the public nor the media have shown much interest.
...There are good reasons for this. In any institution other than the federal government, the changes being trumpeted as reinventions would not even be announced, except perhaps on the bulletin board in the hallway. They are the kinds of things that a hospital expects floor nurses to do on their own; that a bank expects branch managers to do on their own; that even a poorly run manufacturer expects supervisors to do on their own--without getting much praise, let alone any extra rewards."
On proposals to "save money" that have no real effect, particularly to taxpayers and constituents:
'Even if all of these proposals were to be enacted, the results would be trivial. The proposed Agriculture Department saving of $3.6 billion over five years works out to about $720 million a year--or around one percent of the annual department budget of almost $70 billion. A saving of $12.5 billion looks like a lot of money. But over two years the federal government spends $3 trillion. An annual saving of $6 billion -and this is many times more than Congress is likely to accept--would thus be a cut of no more than two tenths of one percent of the budget. Surely the only way to describe the results of Gore's efforts so far is with the old Latin tag "The mountains convulsed in labor only to give birth to a ridiculous, teensy-weensy Mouse." '
The commentary above also reminds us that lobbyists, special-interest groups, and Congress always view the lack of budget growth as a "cut" in funding. To actually lower or terminate spending would be akin to heresy, and the 'savings' Dr. Drucker indicates above (in mid-1990s dollars) are minuscule and don't matter much in the end given the total amount of spending.
Dr. Drucker then goes further as to why the government must restructure:
'Any organization, whether biological or social, needs to change its basic structure if it significantly changes its size. Any organization that doubles or triples in size needs to be restructured. Similarly, any organization, whether a business, a nonprofit, or a government agency, needs to rethink itself once it is more than forty or fifty years old. It has outgrown its policies and its rules of behavior. If it continues in its old ways, it becomes ungovernable, unmanageable, uncontrollable.
The civilian part of the U.S. government has outgrown its size and outlived its policies. It is now far larger than it was during the Eisenhower Administration. Its structure, its policies, and its rules for doing government business and for managing people go back even further than that. They were first developed under William McKinley after 1896, and were pretty much completed under Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933.'
So, a new Federal CIO/CTO is going to come in, specify a load of technology to 'correct' all of this ancient and bloated organizational and process infrastructure, and declare victory? How many of us still follow very-explicit business processes from 1933? Or 1988, for that matter? Yes, there are some, but very few. In this particular case, the 'old-way' of government going about its business is the rule, not the exception. How is an infusion of 21st-Century technology supposed to improve or enhance business processes originally made in the 19th and early-20th century if the processes themselves aren't changed?
For those that want to play the 'blame-game' and lay this dilemma all at the feet of specific partisan or ideological interests:
'In fact there is no point in blaming this or that President for the total disarray of our government today. It is the fault neither of the Democrats nor of the Republicans. Government has outgrown the structure, the policies, and the rules designed for it and still in use.'
Dr. Drucker then wisely provides a roadmap for what organizations (not just government) should (and should not) do when confronting these issues:
'The first reaction in a situation of disarray is always to do what Vice President Gore and his associates are now doing--patching. It always fails. The next step is to rush into downsizing. Management picks up a meat-ax and lays about itself indiscriminately. This is what the Republicans and (as of last December) President Clinton now promise. In the past fifteen years one big American company after another has done this--among them IBM, Sears, and GM. Each first announced that laying off 10,000 or 20,000 or even 50,000 people would lead to an immediate turnaround. A year later there had, of course, been no turnaround, and the company laid off another 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000--again without results. In many if not most cases, downsizing has turned out to be something that surgeons for centuries have warned against: "amputation before diagnosis." The result is always a casualty.
But there have been a few organizations--some large companies (GE, for instance) and a few large hospitals (Beth Israel in Boston, for instance)--that, without fanfare, did turn themselves around, by rethinking themselves. They did not start out by downsizing. In fact, they knew that the way to get control of costs is not to start by reducing expenditures but to identify the activities that are productive, that should be strengthened, promoted, and expanded. Every agency, every policy, every program, every activity, should be confronted with these questions: "What is your mission?" "Is it still the right mission?" "Is it still worth doing?" "If we were not already doing this, would we now go into it?" This questioning has been done often enough in all kinds of organizations--businesses, hospitals, churches, and even local governments--that we know it works.
The overall answer is almost never "This is fine as it stands; let's keep on." But in some--indeed, a good many--areas the answer to the last question is "Yes, we would go into this again, but with some changes. We have learned a few things." '
If the incoming Obama administration is serious about 'real change' in the federal government, they're going to need to confront reality along the lines of Dr. Drucker's advice above. So will Congress, if they can possibly get past the lobbyists and special-interest groups - a tall order but it may be possible. The answer is definitely not hiring someone as a pseudo-overlord CIO/CTO to throw technology at the problems and declare victory - that's akin to "patching over the problems" and always fails in the end.
On the other hand, 'real change' will eventually be forced upon us by huge, swirling budget deficits and immense, unsustainable government debt - and that time will come much sooner than most people think. We have an opportunity now to examine, diagnose, address, and correct these problems in a rational, sensible manner.
Or have it mandated to us by the rest of the world, which would most likely result in 'amputations without diagnosis,' and that game has no winners.