Mark Forman | Another View: The lessons of reform (full version)

The following commentary is an excerpt of acceptance remarks made at the GCN Awards Gala on Oct. 25, upon being inducted into GCN's Hall of Fame.


Mark Forman, former Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and IT

Ever since I came to Washington, I've wondered how a government staffed with bright and committed employees could keep GAO so active. I'd like to mark my induction into the GCN Hall of Fame by highlighting some of the key lessons that I've learned.

Focus on the incentive structures: Processes, technologies, org charts, etc. are just tools. They don't solve problems on their own. We've spent decades and billions of dollars building databases because people in D.C. think more or better information will yield better government decisions. But in the 1980s, in the 1990s and even as little as three years ago, I saw, repeatedly, good people making irrational decisions. If you asked them how they came to this decision, you would get a very rational explanation that made perfect sense in their own environments, but one that made no sense anywhere else. Why? People act in line with their incentives, and the incentives direct people to the wrong results. Government reformers often put themselves at great risk and have to decide whether to buck the system by trying to make things better. Unfortunately, too many end up trying to succeed within the system they know is broken, rather than overhaul it.

We need a new rule that rewrites the incentives in government. I believe in'and have used'the carrot-and-stick approach to driving change in government, and I know it to be effective. But for lasting change, positive rewards will always beat negative consequences.

Transparency and accountability: Let the sun shine in and fix the problems. Our form of democracy requires open insight into how the taxpayers' money is spent and the results achieved. Every wave of information technology promotes transparency and responsiveness.

Don't mistake a critic for a detractor: Listen and decide. Regardless of their motive, I have found it worthwhile to listen, understand and address the critics' arguments. To my surprise, critics become proponents almost every time. But they get louder when you don't listen. The worst situations in Washington occur when leaders victimize people who raise valid concerns.

Leverage teamwork: Over the last five or six years, government work has moved away from hierarchical segments. Increasingly, government relies on teamwork.

Give away success: There are many people in D.C. who adhere to the 'me' generation concept, and I try not to be one of them. I believe in making a sundae and letting other people enjoy it. But, I've always tried to spread more credit than I take. My experience is that you run the risk of not getting credit for something you worked hard for, and I've experienced that, but sooner or later things work out to your favor.

Set goals and figure out how to beat them: We must understand the relationships between resources and results. We must solve the problems constraining results.

Understand emerging innovations; figure out how to apply them in your situation. If you don't understand the opportunities, change will embrace someone else.

Major reforms come from outside the system (usually driven by the Congress or an election); rarely will it come from within the bureaucracy. Washington works like a magic triangle comprising Congress, the press and the executive branch. At the center must be a champion who is willing to lead change. The press and Congress tend to focus most on the newsworthy cases of victims or [incidents of] fraud, waste and abuse. Government reform is rarely sexy enough to be newsworthy. We need more champions who know how to work the magic triangle.

Every day we face choices: Take a long-term view in figuring out your choices and making them; the most important choice you usually face is between short-term gain'or short-term pain' and long-term gain.

The hardest problems need the KISS principle: You can be sophisticated and complex in analyzing the problem, but whatever you do, 'Keep it simple, Stupid,' and easy to understand.

Over the next few years I see two major opportunities for government reform that may affect this environment:

The Internet and laws such as the Federal Funds Accountability and Transparency Act offer dramatic opportunities to let the sun shine in on government spending. Imagine an environment where the public can see where the money is being spent and what they are getting in return. The Performance and Accountability Reports are produced annually at a very high level of detail. If information is published in greater detail on a monthly basis, and the public starts to scrutinize it, there could be dramatic shifts in incentives. And it should be noted that this act became law through the forces of government reformers using the power of Internet blogs to move Congress to action'the circumstances are positively dripping with irony.

A second major opportunity for government reform is in clarifying roles, missionsand responsibilities of government in the 21st century. This is an urgent issue that affects our nation and must be addressed if we are to see the fruits of recent reforms.

Mark Forman was the first administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. He is now a principle with KPMG LLC of New York.

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