A business case for federal operational improvements enabled by quality data

The attached policy study was published originally by Aplin Labs and co-authored with David Paschane, Aplin’s CEO and lead scientist; Eric Hannel, a strategic consultant at Aplin; and Christian Hoehner, policy director for the Data Coalition.

Among the 4 million people who operate, oversee and audit federal operations, there are nearly 8,000 senior executives who serve as the federal leaders responsible for the total cost and value of federal operations. Regardless of their career rank, each leader has a common responsibility to (a) refine the operational capability, (b) improve the operational performance and (c) optimize the operational outcomes. For several reasons, these responsibilities are more complicated than they appear, especially within the context of a new administration.

First, the business context is changing. Currently, federal leaders are responding to an opportunity to make deep and lasting changes to their operations. President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that required the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mick Mulvaney, to develop a plan for effective, efficient and accountable operations throughout the federal government. In turn, Mulvaney issued an order to all federal agencies to develop plans to reform their operational capability and performance, including the performance of their respective employees. The two orders provide significant political coverage for federal leaders to be bold with the business case of their respective operational plans.

Second, the operational scopes are changing. When OMB uses the agency plans to organize governmentwide reforms, they are essentially calling on each federal leader to be prepared for a broader engagement than their traditional chain of command. Federal leaders need to know how their operations are affected by other operations. The other operations may be support functions, such as information technology, human resources or service contracting. Or, they are operations with overlapping or duplicative functions, where these functions can be consolidated or shared for cost-effectiveness. Outside of OMB, think tanks are publishing helpful, detailed governmentwide reorganization plans recommending pragmatic cures to longstanding and pervasive problems in the federal government. There is now an opportunity for federal leaders to re-examine their operations’ true cause-effect in federal outcomes.

Third, the agency structures are changing. Internally, agencies are structured by their ongoing recombinations of communications and rules, technology and analytics, and workflows and teams, which in turn reinforces cultures and capabilities. President Trump issued a memorandum that established the White House Office of American Innovation (OAI). The OAI is charged with developing policies and plans to improve federal operations and their outcomes. In a recent statement, OAI’s Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives, correctly identified that “the challenge is to build a culture and organizational structure that is continually updated.” Too often, federal leaders believe their work is limited to the design and status reporting of their respective operation; however, with OAI in place, they can also participate in improving the structure, and how it effects employee culture and internal business capability.

Fourth, the leadership support is changing. Through the Congress, federal leaders now gain support through multiple sources. The Government Performance and Reporting Modernization Act (GPRMA) established leadership support from politically appointed executives, namely the offices of deputy secretaries; and in OMB, through President Trump’s next U.S. chief performance officer. Additionally, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) required all federal spending information to be standardized and structured for open publication and bulk use, which enables the pursuit of operation-specific costs of business. Meanwhile, the U.S. Government Accountability Office is actively assessing the leadership support in GPRMA, and has an implementation status report due on the DATA Act this November. These laws, and their subsequent policies, demonstrate that federal leaders are increasingly supported by the Congress and the administration.

Together, changes to the business context, operational scopes, agency structures, and leadership support create an unprecedented opportunity for federal leaders. The changes are in the fundamentals of doing business. Federal leaders no longer must restrict themselves to the legacy controls of the bureaucracy; rather, they can test and rebuild their operational capabilities, performance and outcome.

While the president and the Congress are moving forward in multiple aspects of reforming the federal government, each federal leader will face unique barriers. These barriers will become increasingly apparent when federal leaders develop and reveal their business cases for operational improvements.

The following is a business case that federal leaders can use to develop practical improvements, while addressing some of the likely barriers. It includes 10 critical areas where federal leaders can influence improvements in federal operations.

The timing is important. Now, with the help of the DATA Act and its supporters, federal leaders have access to the first governmentwide open financial data standard, presenting the opportunity to link together agency administrative datasets for relevant personnel management, information technology and program performance improvement analyses. In support of this progress, we provide guidance on how federal leaders, with the help of the administration, can further define and pursue quality, structured data.

Image by Yeexin Richelle


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