Why is Change So Hard to Accomplish in Government?

“We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.”

Vince Lombardi

I always take it with a grain of salt when I hear politicians promising to come to Washington and change the government. They may have the best of intentions, but people who have not spent time working within the bureaucracy rarely understand the complexities of changing government, particularly in this era of partisanship. Real change in government takes bold leadership, parties willing to work together for the common good, people in government who understand the levers of bureaucracy and how to make them work, and a good bit of luck. If all of those things come together, there is a good chance that real changes can be made to happen. If three of the four come together, there is some chance. If only one or two are present, it might be time to pray to St. Jude (the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes). Why so?

Big changes in government are incredibly difficult to accomplish. The organizational inertia that exists in any group is particularly present in government. Here are just a few reasons why I say that:

  • Tendency of people to stay in the same place. I have worked with many people in my career who spent most of their professional lives in one organization. The lack of a more expansive view can limit options those folks are willing to consider. It also limits the solutions they may devise. While we all like to think our best ideas were solely our creation, the truth is that many of them are based on things we have seen before. They might be something as simple as replicating someone else’s solution to a similar problem, or something more complex that is an amalgam of many solutions they have seen applied to many other problems. If all we know if how a single organization does business, we have less opportunity to see other ways of solving problems.
  • Challenges of getting everyone who needs to sign off to do so. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t have their favorite “coordination hell” story. When I was at DHS I used to say that coordination was where good ideas go to die. It is one of the most effective tools of the bureaucrats who do not want change to happen. While coordination is supposed to be a good thing (having the people who need to weigh in getting the opportunity to do so), it is often either by design or by chance the thing that stops progress.
  • Transitory nature of political and military leadership. The average tenure of a political appointee is about 18 months. In the Department of Defense, the typical assignment of an officer is 2 – 3 years. In both cases it means the people who lead organizations are often there for no more than 2 years. That can lead to a very myopic view of the world. My experience was that the military were less likely to fall victim to that than the politicals. When your job is going to last 2 years, 6 months is a long time, a year is an eternity, and more than 2 years means never. Although I spent 31 years as a career employee, I switched to a political appointment at DHS. One of the best senior executives in my office told me a few months into the job that I had successfully become a political appointee. When I asked why he said that, he said “You want everything immediately.” I had to admit he was right. Having an expiration date stamped on your forehead changes how you view time in ways that are not always good. People in such positions need to guard against the tendency to avoid starting things they cannot finish. Many good ideas take years to fully implement. The best political and military leaders recognize that and make decisions based upon what is best for their organization and the taxpayers, rather than what might be best for their careers. The best career employees are willing to point that out to political and military leaders when they forget.
  • Political oversight that is often more focused on politics than good government. As we have watched politics become more toxic, and seen public discourse degenerate into ad hominem attacks rather than policy debates, making real change happen has become even more difficult. Big change is always accompanied by some risk. Whether the risk is in the budget, the likelihood of failure, inability to meet timelines, or any other category of risk, it serves as a disincentive to change agents. It also has a powerful effect on the leaders who have very little time to get things done, who may become far more risk-averse.

Even though change is hard, that doesn’t mean you should not try. There are a lot of great examples where agencies made a tremendous difference in how they do things, such as the Defense Logistics agency’s Business System Modernization and HR Transformation programs. To be successful, agencies have to focus on the things they can control, such as having the right people on the job and leaders who are willing to take risks. They also have to follow some proven strategies for successful change. One of the most powerful is application of program management discipline to major change initiatives. We often see Project Management Offices (PMOs) established for information technology or large acquisition programs. The same principles apply in when an agency is contemplating a major policy initiative or operational changes to improve performance. Those efforts face many of the same challenges they would encounter in a major acquisition or IT program. They may also fail for many of the same reasons.

Government (contrary to popular belief) does not suffer from a lack of good ideas. There are many smart people in government who have great ideas for making their services and operations better. Where government often falls short is in execution – typically for the reasons I have already described. By establishing a PMO for major initiatives, an agency can ensure that they maximize their ability to execute change. The combination of discipline in execution, change management and governance can bring big payoffs in results. When an experienced project manager is teamed with the right subject-matter experts and supported by the agency’s senior leaders, most agencies are fully capable of delivering the kind of transformational change we need in government today.