Government Management is Not an Oxymoron

My former colleagues/bosses Bill Daley and Linda Bilmes wrote an interesting op/ed piece for the Washington Post offering ideas for improving management in government. It is well worth reading. I wrote about a similar issue on December 19, asking Should We Manage Government Like a Business?  Bill and Linda used the Healthcare.gov website issues as a starting point for discussion. Those problems have been fodder for pundits and politicians, most of whom are using it to reinforce ideas they have touted for years. I cannot argue with that, because I am getting ready to do the same thing.

Two story lines in recent days struck a nerve with me. First was the idea that the Healthcare.gov problems were caused by the procurement process. Second was Jeff Zients’ comment that the team working the Healthcare.gov issues needed to work with private sector speed. As much as I would like to improve the procurement process, there is much more to this story than how we buy IT. How we manage IT projects is equally or more important.

Speed is not unique to the private sector and sloppy IT project management is not unique to government. There are many examples in government of agencies moving quickly and efficiently to deal with issues and many examples in the private sector of IT project failures. I had the good fortune to work at the Defense Logistics Agency when we were deploying a new logistics system to run the Agency’s core business. The project cost was close to a billion dollars, but it was rolled out successfully (if a bit late) and we retired the legacy systems we intended to retire. They say success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. A lot of people take credit for DLA’s successful deployment, but the idea that success has many fathers (and mothers) is actually true.

When the project began, the Agency’s Vice Director (RADM Ray Archer) insisted the entire senior civilian leadership team comprising most of the Agency’s SES cadre take personal responsibility for the project. His belief was that the civilian leaders would be the ones who had to see the project through to completion. The military leaders would be long gone by the time we were done. He also believed we could not appoint a project manager and hold him or her responsible for getting it done. We could not ask the CIO to be solely responsible, nor could we pin it on the Logistics Operations Director. The Agency was betting its future on a new system and it could not happen without the full and unwavering engagement of the entire leadership team. We met for 8 hours a day, twice a month, for several years to look at countless aspects of the system, including training, change management, business process changes, system requirements, financials, and more. In short, we managed the program as a team. We were all responsible for its success and we would have all been responsible for its failure.

That type of “all in” commitment by an organization’s leaders is essential for large-scale system projects. When it doesn’t happen, the risk of failure rises. The larger the project, the more essential total leadership commitment becomes. We can reform procurement (and I hope we do), but streamlined and simplified procurement will not replace committed leadership.

One other aspect of system projects that we need to consider is the role of the Chief Information Officer. The truth is that many federal CIOs are Chiefs in name only. Departmental CIOs generally do not control the Department’s IT budget. It is appropriated to bureau/agency/component levels and the CIO has no authority to ensure that worthwhile and needed projects get funded and executed, kill underperforming projects, and say no to wasteful and duplicative projects. There are some superb CIOs in government who know how to get things done, but they operate with one hand tied behind their backs. If we really want to manage IT projects more effectively, we need to equip our CIOs with the authority to really do their jobs.

Government management is not an oxymoron, but it is a challenge. Budget processes, slow and cumbersome procurement processes, and a lack of incentives to drive tough management decisions combine to make government far less effective than it could be. If we want to make real improvements, we need to look at the entire spectrum of management rather than just procurement.

Human Capital? Human Resources? Personnel? Does it matter?

Why did I call this blog ChiefHRO.com (for Chief Human Resources Officer) rather than something that uses the term “Human Capital?” After all, I was the Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security. So why not use it? Simple – I really dislike the term “human capital.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “capital” as “Wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization or available or contributed for a particular purpose such as starting a company or investing.”  “Resources” is defined as “a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.”  Proponents of the “Human Capital” designation assert that Human Resources is an organization that provides services and “Human Capital” is strategic value of the people who do the work of the organization. They are not arguing against the people in organizations – in fact they are arguing that people are so critical to any organization’s success that they must be managed and treated as capital – the fundamental underpinning of any successful business. Unfortunately, I can not get past the “owned” part of the definition. Employees are not slaves or indentured servants – they are adults who choose to work for an organization. They are free to leave any time and often do. Your capital cannot decide to take a hike.

The evolution of names for people and organizations who do HR work (and for the work itself) always generates some controversy. Many years ago, they were Industrial Relations Offices. Then they became Personnel, the Human Resources, and then (at least in government) they became Human Capital. Even with all of the name changes, the basic work they did often was little changed. In fact, the name change were aspirational in many organizations. They wanted to be different and, more importantly, they wanted to be perceived differently. The sad fact is that changing your name doesn’t change what you do, who you are, or how you are perceived. I can change my name to Brad Pitt, but I don’t become a blonde, rich and famous movie star.

So is it really important to decide on a name for HR? I don’t think so. If you like Human Capital, by all means be a Human Capitalist. If you prefer HR, go for it. A few years ago, a friend who lead HR for an independent Federal agency changed her title to “Chief People Officer.” I think I like that one best of all, because it says in plain English what it is all about – People. Whatever you do, just recognize that organizations get nothing done without people, and people have minds and hearts and free will. Treat them badly and they can and will walk. Treat them with respect, give them opportunities to do good and interesting things, and they will make you successful. That’s what it (and this Blog) is all about.