Nov 04 2011

Washington Politics Fuel Questionable Management Practices

The politics of Washington spill over onto IT programs and lead to some questionable management practices.

The things that go on in Washington can be infuriating, particularly when they involve efforts to influence the public perceptions of progress, status and the like. Certainly, all types of people and institutions use these techniques, but Washington is littered with "spinmeisters" seeking to manage perception.

Why is this? First, politics is key in the nation's capital, probably more than in any other place in the world. And it tends to reflect perception, not reality. Of course, in our two-party system, there are always at least two versions of reality on any given issue.

In addition, measuring results can be difficult in Washington. Leading institutions in most parts of the country can be measured in terms of business results: revenue, profits and earnings. A well-established industry and regulatory structure helps ensure that business results are consistent and accurate. But perhaps most important, a market-based system translates the collective understanding of business results and future prospects into current valuation.

Government agencies, however, have trouble measuring the results of programs, or even establishing a clear understanding of their objectives. Despite numerous attempts to define and improve government performance over the years, many agencies still haven't gotten to first base. There is little agreement on how to measure performance or track progress. Frankly, at the strategic level, there is little agreement on how government ought to focus its efforts, or on the size and scope of those efforts, which leads to acrimony between political parties.

It's clear why perception is king, but less so some of the behaviors that result. Let's take a look at three of the more suspect behaviors:

1: Declaring Victory Based on Plans

The first step in problem-solving is to develop a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy. Success is measured by how well improvements are implemented and, ultimately, the results they achieve.

Planning is the easy part; executing the plan, especially across a vast enterprise like the federal government, is tough. The most important attribute of the plan is to communicate what needs to be done and who needs to do it. Getting everyone in the boat and rowing in the same direction requires a good plan, but leadership, drive and will are even more critical.

Yet, government organizations often declare success soon after completing a plan — well in advance of achieving any of the results the effort might be intended to deliver.

There's a very recent example of this in former federal CIO Vivek Kundra's declaration of victory after publishing the "25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management." If history serves as a guide, favorable results may come for the portions of the plan that are rigorously implemented with strong engagement by senior leaders, while little will come from those portions that don't receive such attention.

Lesson: Execution that delivers results is what determines real success; strategy development and planning are just important steps in the process.

2: Trumping Up Results for the Legacy

Illustration: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"Despite numerous attempts to define and improve government performance over the years, many agencies still haven't gotten to first base."

— Paul Wohlleben

With the 2012 election season upon us, this next behavior, involving overstated past achievements, will become increasingly more common. For starters, the incumbent party will begin to work its spin at a fever pitch to point out every conceivable success of its programs. The issue will be, of course, that we will be in the realm of multiple "realities," and most of what will be portrayed as success will not be supported by facts.

On a lesser scale, individuals who are leaving important government positions tend to craft versions of their legacies as they leave office. Often, they create versions of reality that seem more favorable in terms of accomplishments than most witnesses can recall.

This is not a partisan activity; both parties do this to their benefit where they are able. In national elections, big issues such as war and the economy tend to determine who will be elected, and trumped-up claims of success in government programs or management aren't really important. But it's disappointing nonetheless when individuals perpetrate a form of resume fraud by distorting what did or did not happen during their government tenures.

Lesson: It's the results that will count ultimately, especially in history books.

3: Blaming Others

It is hard to effect change in government. It's necessary to respect successful government programs because they exist in a difficult environment.

Although a number of factors affect success, planning and risk management can identify such factors and help an agency develop strategies to maximize success.

We expect to see the blame game played between Congress and the administration, between political parties, and in elections. As suggested earlier, facts often don't matter at that level; it's mostly about perception. It's dismaying, however, when government leaders blame others for their failures.

Lesson: Blame is ephemeral; facts will ultimately reveal who did or did not deliver on a program's goals.