This week we facilitated a half-day strategic retreat for a federal agency at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The challenge presented to us represents a growing one for government: What does it mean for government to serve its citizens
This is a fascinating question, and its resolution has political, social, and even economic implications. Throughout the conversation, several themes continuously reappeared.
First, the demands placed on the shoulders of civil servants continue to escalate. While many of them are able to meet the demand by working harder, there are others who admit to feeling overwhelmed.
To these individuals, everything is urgent and there is no room to say no. There are no strategic priorities. Or, the strategic priorities of the last five directors are still in place, often competing with each other for time and resources.
Working in government means you have to have a long memory. Nothing dies. Old initiatives seem to stick around, even though new ones are introduced every time an election sweeps in a new leader.
The civil servants who took part in this conversation are also struggling to explain their impact. I asked a dozen or so of the regional directors who were in attendance how they measured their office’s impact and I received a dozen or more responses. In many government agencies, there simply is no clear agreement on how to measure impact and outcomes.
Government tends to measure activities and outputs. We can track how many federal grants have been dispersed, or how many citizens have visited a government-run program. But government is struggling to demonstrate its
I believe that failure has exacerbated the feeling by some that government is ineffective. There are so many examples that run counter to this conclusion. Unfortunately, we are not giving civil servants the tools and the training to think about their work in terms of advancing the strategic priorities that have the greatest impact and produce the most efficient outcomes.