Steven Kelman on Government Performance

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on December 6, 2010

The business of government is often considered overly bureaucratic and slow to respond to changing circumstances. Yet at other times, it can be extremely adept, agile, and responsive to citizens’ needs. How U.S. government agencies can and should be structured to maximize performance is the focus of Professor Steven Kelman’s writing and research. Kelman is the Weatherhead Professor of Public Management and former Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget.

Q: Much of your recent work has focused on performance metrics ways of measuring organizational performance and then holding workers and their leaders accountable. Is government learning to do a better job of this?

Kelman: People often say that it’s harder for the government to do a good job than it is for business firms because government doesn’t have a clear metric like the profit motive. Performance measures are the government’s equivalent to profit measures: crime rates; the percentage of patients at Veteran’s hospitals who get infections; the percentage of people who call the IRS and receive the correct answer to their questions. Above all, performance measurement can be used and should be used in government to improve performance: by motivating people, and by providing feedback about past performance, which is key to doing a better job next time. This has been going on now for about 20 years now in the U.S. government and other governments.

The good news about performance measurement is that across three different presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican, we’ve moved gradually forward on this. The bad news is that we still have a long way to go. I like the approach of the Obama Administration to have agencies designate a small list of ‘high-priority’ goals, along with a ‘goal leader’ for each goal.

Q: You have been a strong advocate for improving government procurement and contracting policies. What are the current problems affecting these crucial areas and how are they being addressed?

Kelman: Contracting is a big deal in the federal government; it accounts for about 40 percent of federal discretionary spending. Some agencies spend a lot more. For NASA and the Department of Energy, it's 80 to 90 percent. In the defense department it’s over 50 percent.

I think there are two big problems. One is that in terms of our management priorities in government, we haven’t adapted to the current reality of the 21st century. Contracting is a very important way that the government gets its work done, yet contracting doesn’t have the management visibility or the management attention or the resources it needs for us to award and manage these contracts appropriately. The second big problem is that we have a penchant for putting energy and resources into criticism after the fact rather than preparation up front. For example, after hurricane Katrina, we had about 40 contracting officers in the gulf awarding post-Katrina contracts. A year later we had 400 inspectors and auditors in the area —  ten times as many! —  second-guessing the job that had been done the first time. We need to reverse those percentages.

Q: You were involved in the Reinventing Government initiative during the Clinton administration. In what ways has that initiative contributed to improvements in government organization and performance?

Kelman: The basic thrust of the Reinventing Government initiative was to make better use of the skills, abilities and public spirit of government employees, both in terms of getting ideas and trying to do a better job, and trying to move away from bureaucratic constrictions in order to give folks who are doing the work more ability to make decisions about the appropriate ways to move forward.

I believe that approach in a number of agencies produced very dramatic turnarounds. FEMA during the Reinventing Government period really turned itself around and performed very well during a number of natural disasters (of course, this was reversed later). Another big turnaround occurred at the Veterans Hospitals, which during this period transitioned from a really quite poorly performing hospital system to one of the best performing hospital systems in the country.

Q: How can and should the federal service improve its recruiting and promotion strategies in order to attract more and better trained young people?

Kelman: There are tactical issues here and strategic issues. At a tactical level, the government needs to do better with the nuts and bolts of follow up — making job offers faster, keeping people informed by email about the status of their application. At a strategic level, though, there are two things to which we need to pay attention. One is that we need to pay attention to giving these new recruits interesting jobs once they come in to government —  not make-work, but exciting jobs with responsibility early on — or else we’re going to lose them. Second, because the government is a little bit like a consulting firm or professional services firm, senior management needs to pay much closer attention than most government senior managers do now to whom we’re recruiting. They should be interviewing people; they should be sending bright young people who work in these agencies to do interviews on campus. Just as with contracting, we need to take the hiring and retention process for this new generation of employees more seriously than we generally do.

Q. Negativity surrounds the public’s attitude towards government in the U.S. today, yet we need young people to choose to go into public service now more than ever. What do you tell young people is the most positive thing about working for the government?

Kelman: The most positive thing about working for the government is the ability to make a contribution towards making our society better. It’s as simple as that: making a difference in creating a better world for ourselves, for people in other countries, and for our children, and for generations to come.

Q: Compared to other countries, what does the U.S. government do well organizationally, and where are we lacking and need improvement?

Kelman: The U.S., like a number of other countries, particularly in the English-speaking world —  UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada —  is paying a lot of attention to performance measurement. I think that’s really a key way to try to improve government. In the context of that, the idea of improving customer service is critical —  treating people who interact with government like customers, not like subjects or like people who don’t deserve to be treated well.

Like a number of other advanced countries, we have a relatively honest and low-corruption government. I know many Americans may not think that, but it’s true, certainly in comparison to many other countries. I think we’ve learned that a government with a high level of honesty is really one of the preconditions of economic growth. It’s a lesson that a number of developing countries need to think about and take seriously.

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page