Better Management in Government

This month Paul Borawski (CEO of ASQ) has asked the ASQ Influential Voices to share their thoughts on quality management in the public sector.

photo of John Hunter with the US Capital in the Background

John Hunter with the US Capital in the background, Washington DC

I have been involved in quality improvement in government at the Office of Secretary of Defense Quality Management Office and the White House Military Office and elsewhere. Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications Agency by March Laree Jacques provides a nice look at some good efforts. I also was on the board of the Public Sector Network which became the ASQ Government Division. There is lots of great work that has been done.

There are many issues involved, but the biggest is that the leaders in government are normally not interested in having the government perform better. They have political agendas that they are more concerned with, performance just doesn’t matter (or in some cases they even want bad results because their political view is government is bad and therefore anything that makes it look good should be avoided). So they turn the focus of the government to achieving the political aims they have and starve government organizations of talent and money that are not focused exclusively on their agenda.

This doesn’t have to be the case. If politicians cared about the results of their policies, not just the political points related to their agenda it would make sense to support better management strategies. By and large their actions indicate they are not really interested in the results.

Some in government are able to overcome bad leadership. And occasionally political leaders that actual care about results do emerge. In Dr. Deming’s Out of the Crisis he includes (on pages 245-247) an overview, by my father – William Hunter, of the efforts at the City of Madison (which was the first application of Deming’s ideas by government). My father talked to the Mayor (Joe Sensenbrenner) about a project to use management improvement ideas to improve city government performance and the Mayor went along and then became a great advocate.


As good management improvement strategy would suggest, they did a pilot project and Peter Scholtes was with the city at the time and participated (before going on to write the Team Handbook, Leader’s Handbook and so much more). The pilot was a success and the City of Madison did lots of great stuff for decades.

Related: Doing More with Less in the Public SectorQuality in the Community: One City’s ExperienceFocus on the Work: Pick Improvement Projects that Really Help Your Agency’s Operations by Tim Fuller – Managing Improvement in the U.S. Government by Armand V. Feigenbaum

I maintain the public sector continuous improvement site as a resource for those trying to improve government performance.

Political whims can make things a bit more difficult for those seeking to create government organizations focused on better performance. But it is perfectly possible to create organizations that use better management practices to implement the policies political leadership decides on. It requires a respect for the importance of proper management and a respect for people that is often lacking now.

Respect for people is not about making no one uncomfortable. It is about giving them the opportunity to take pride in their work which many government organizations preclude with bad management practices. This includes allowing bad practices to be continued (which everyone acknowledge are not good but they tolerate). In government one aspect of respect for people requires that poor system and personal performances are not accepted and are addressed so that people don’t have to be ashamed of the results they achieve.

Local governments have often had more successful implementations of management improvement ideas compared to federal efforts. This might relate to the emphasis on political statements by federal politicians and the increased emphasis on results at the local level. Politicians at the local level are blamed if systems preform poorly. The politicians in Washington DC often get away with just blaming government and accepting no responsibility for implementing policies that produce results. Even so there are still many quite successful efforts in the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the federal government.

Those success federal efforts were driven by non-politicans (and normally by long term government employees rather than political appointees) and were aimed, as I mentioned above, at implementing whatever policies were decided on most effectively. This is perfectly workable. It is just a bit more challenging; often the next set of political appointees want to wipe out whatever the previous people did, whether it was good or bad. It often requires fairly aggressive refusal by the long term staff to keep good methods – even if the political aims change. The desire to throw out good (not political) methods, doesn’t always happen, but far far more often than one caring about performance would like to see.

Some of this is tricky. Often fairly lame policies can be implemented well. At times though, foolish political decisions are directly at odds with the transparency and evidence based decision making that management improvement efforts require. So if you have political decisions to practice security theater practicing evidence based management you show how foolish the leader’s decisions were. In organization that care about results this is acceptable.

It is sad to say that in an area as important as security we can’t practice evidence based management because leaders foolish thinking and decisions would be exposed. Hopefully some day we won’t tolerate such bad practices when the consequences are so important.

Very few leader like learning they made a foolish decision. But in an organization where performance matters most, it is not acceptable to refuse to acknowledge all the evidence that the decision was bad. But in political organizations often the leaders just refuse to allow sensible management strategies to show how bad certain policies are. They would much rather accept very bad results than have to learn that their policy is a failure.

This is another aspect of good management methods that politicians have a problem with. Good management methods aim at learning and adapting. So many politicians today have rigid ideologies and have no interest in learning and adapting to what the evidence shows.

The truth is that this covering up (or preventing evidence based management practices to avoid evidence that has to be covered up) is much more common outside of government than people like to admit. There is a great deal of foolishly doing what some executive wants because they have authority. Good management improvement practices would weed out such behavior but even in organizations that are adopting some good methods, authority driven (instead of evidence driven) practices are common. So, while in government the problem of poor leadership is even worse, it is just a matter of degree, not something unique to government.

If one wants to apply better management ideas in government it is foolish to ignore all the previous efforts to do so. But this is often done, as I have discussed previously: Federal Government Chief Performance Officer.

For what I think government should do see: posts on public sector quality improvement and of course the public sector management improvement site I mentioned earlier. But most of what should be done is similar to what every other organization needs to do: Building Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your Organization, How to Use the PDSA Improvement Cycle, Why Use Lean if So Many Fail To Do So Effectively.

Many of the failures of government systems I would put in a different political failure category (than organizational management failure). The failed health care system that continues to prevent serious system improvement efforts after decades of failure is a good example. The fundamental failures are not because the Health and Human Services department (or other departments) are failing. Yes, those departments could improve. But the overwhelming failure is political. Everything else may even amount to hundreds of billion dollars of waste a year but it pales in comparison to the losses that are political. Similarly the post office’s failure to manage their budget was partially their fault. But it was mainly political decisions that lead to the crisis they face.

The huge budget deficit is do to political decisions to reduce taxes when the government owed huge amounts of money; decisions to spend money that it didn’t have; decisions to spend money without raising taxes; decisions to support fake account measures to pretend future obligations of government (or special spending that they don’t want to include in the annual budget – just because you decide not to count some money you spend doesn’t mean you didn’t spend it) are not relevant accounting matters… Even while government management performance should be drastically improved the failures there pale in comparison to the political failures of those we continue to elect over and over.

2 thoughts on “Better Management in Government

  1. Harry Kenworthy

    John – I worked with Dr. Deming on a series of 2 day seminars set up by Myron Tribus at MIT-CAES in 1983-85. Since leaving the private sector in 2004, QPIC has been focused on applying Lean Six Sigma in Government. Dr. Deming’s principles hold true today and the Toyota Production System embodies most of them. We should connect as we have many things in common and expectations for what Government could be. We do have statewide Government Lean Master contracts in CO, CT, UT and WA and we are helping other states get off the ground. The #1 issue always is the quality of Leadership for this to be successful, and, more importantly, sustainable.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: The Principles and Methods for Improvement are the Same in Manufacturing and Service Companies « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *