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.


Fear Not: The Case for Shared Services in Government

The Federal government, much like any other organization, either provides for itself or buys a wide range of overhead services to support its operations. Overhead is not a derogatory term – it is just the term that is applied to services that are necessary to support the mission of an agency. Missions do not get accomplished without overhead services. While overhead services such as Human Resources, Financial Management, or Contracting support follow laws and regulations that are remarkably consistent across agencies, most agencies have dedicated internal service providers. The result is a level of redundancy and cost that diverts scarce resources to overhead functions rather than agency missions. Faced with decreasing budgets and shocks such as sequestration, agencies can no longer afford to carry out business-as-usual with respect to common support services. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel challenged his Department and its stakeholders to “…challenge all past assumptions…” and “put everything on the table.”

“We need to challenge all past assumptions, and we need to put everything on the table.  For example, it is already clear to me that any serious effort to reform and reshape our defense enterprise must confront the principal drivers of growth in the department’s base budget – namely acquisitions, personnel costs, and overhead.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – April 3, 2013

One good example of overhead services that whould be “on the table” is Human Resources/EEO. Looking only at the number of Federal employees in those occupations, we see 2% of the Federal workforce in the HR/EEO (41,929 employees) job series. Because both HR and EEO offices also employ people in other job series, such as IT, budget, and administration, my experience is that as many as a quarter of the people in HR offices are not in HR series. That means another half percent of the Federal workforce are HR in non-HR job series. The number may be higher. Assuming that conservative number, 2.5% of the Federal workforce exists to provide HR services to the government.

Federal Employees in HR/EEO Job Series

Job Series

# of Employees

Average Salary

Total Cost














+ 30% Fringe


Total Cost



If we look only at the costs of the Human Resources/EEO workforce (in salary and fringe benefits cost of employees in the 201 (HR Specialist), 203 (HR Clerk and Assistant) and 260 (Equal Employment Opportunity) job series is more than $4 billion. HR/EEO organizations also employee people in other job series, such as budget, clerical and information technology, and the common “catch-all” 301 job series. Use of the 301 series for HR has increased in recent years as a way of reducing the apparent number of HR professionals, and to support grades that are often not as easily obtained in the more prescriptive 201, 203 and 260 job series. In addition to the non-HR/EEO job series, HR/EEO service organizations also purchase contract support. The number of dollars devoted to such services is difficult to identify, government-wide it is certainly in the hundreds of millions and perhaps more. Because the costs of common services are buried in agency budgets, the number is rarely examined as a single cost. The time has come to begin that examination and find ways to reduce the cost to a more manageable level.

There are many side effects of failure to consolidate overhead services. Chief among them is the lack of money for training staff and modernizing systems and processes. An agency with redundant overhead organizations will cut costs by taking away everything but salary dollars and leaving the overhead functions with few resources to do anything other than pay their employees. It is rare to find an HR office that is adequately resourced, even when the agency is spending more on such services than would seem necessary. The agency wonders why it is not getting great support, the employees in the support organizations wonder why they cannot get training or adequate tools to do their work, and everyone wonders why it does not get better. An agency, its employees and its HR staff are far better off with one or two well-staffed, trained and resourced HR offices than they are with ten marginally staffed and resourced organizations that struggle to provide good service.

I have heard people saying for years that services cannot be consolidated because their agency is unique. While it may make us feel better to say we are unique, the truth is most agencies are not. The plethora of different rules, processes and systems is the result of choice rather than absolute necessity. Although agencies tend to create their own operating policies and directives for HR services, those rules are usually created because they can be, not because of a compelling business argument. Not only that, attempts to consolidate HR/EEO services are typically met with fierce resistance. When the Department of Defense proposed consolidating HR services in the 1980s, one of the services responded with the objection that their civilian HR services were at the heart of their warfighting capabilities. When faced with that type of opposition, the proposal was dropped. Eventually, the DoD elected to “regionalize” its HR services in a way that protected most of the parochial interests that objected to the previous consolidation proposal. The result was a model that few DoD leaders and virtually no one in HR would consider to be effective or efficient.

When the Defense Logistics Agency proposed a real consolidation of HR services, Pentagon officials supported it as a means of seeing if consolidation could actually work. Studies of the DLA HR transformation have shown it was completely successful, reduced costs, and dramatically improved the quality of services. The proposed transformation was not universally accepted in DLA. In fact, many affected managers, field Commanders and Senior Executives were vehemently opposed. One SES referred to it as “the most brutal proposal I’ve ever seen.” Another said he would rather have bad service he controlled than good service someone else controlled. One General said it was doomed to failure and would generate no savings, even if it could be implemented, which he doubted. They were wrong. Not only did the consolidation work, it saved money and provided more resources for the consolidated offices to get their work done. Many of the savings came from elimination of redundant management structures. Rather than having seven HR offices, each with an HR Director, staff directors, and support teams for each, there were two HR offices. Rather than having seven sets of HR tools, we had one. Rather than having seven sets of operating procedures, we had one. DLA is not the only example of effective HR consolidation. Agencies as diverse as the Department of the Treasury, NASA, the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior have had similar successes. That kind of consolidation and cost reduction is not radical. It is not risky, and it is not new and different. It is a tried and proven approach to delivering services.

What was driving those objections, and what bold leaders in government will face today, is fear. Fear of loss of control. Fear of loss of influence. Fear of failure. Fear of services that are worse than before. Overcoming those fears is critical if government is going to transform itself today. If those fears drive debates about overhead services, imagine how people will respond when asked to do the same thing for mission services. How will any real consolidation of services, elimination of redundant missions and consolidation of agencies take place? We have proven in multiple agencies that support services can be effectively and efficiently consolidated, yet that knowledge has not been translated into government wide measures to dramatically transform support services. It is time to take that step.