Avoiding the pitfalls between policy and practice

In their recent book, “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…Getting Big Things Done in Government,” Bill Eggers and John O’Leary, developed a framework by examining seventy-five case studies of complex government projects, and they found that by breaking big projects into pieces, they were able to identify points of failure that followed predictable paths. Mr. Eggers spoke with CivSource recently about his new book, the likely pitfalls awaiting any far-reaching policy, and how technology can play an important role in avoiding those pitfalls.

In the wake of President Obama’s Open Government Directive (OGD) there is much to do about how open data will change the way government delivers services, communicates with constituents and improves performance. In yesterday’s live webcast, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said the OGD is, “changing the default setting of government from secretive, opaque and closed to one that is open, participatory and collaborative.”

Federal agencies now have a litany of benchmarks to meet in order to comply with the directive. A few of the big ones include, identifying low-hanging, high-value data sets, appointing a top-level organizer and reevaluating current communication methods to implement a comprehensive open data plan within the next four months. By any policy measure, the OGD is wide-reaching document, with big implications for agencies government-wide.

As much as the OGD is meant to give the American public a better understanding of how federal agencies spend taxpayer dollars, open government has the potential to shake-up government performance and project management in ways previously unimaginable. One person who has extensive knowledge of ambitious government projects is Bill Eggers, principle at Deloitte Services LP, and co-author of the recent book, “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…Getting Big Things Done in Government.”

Mr. Eggers spoke with CivSource recently about his new book, the likely pitfalls awaiting any far-reaching policy, and how technology can play an important role in avoiding those pitfalls. Although the crux of “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon” is to identify patterns of success and failure in multi-million dollar government projects, Eggers said the book hopes to ultimately bridge the gap between public policy and implementation.

In the book, Mr. Eggs and co-author John O’Leary built a framework, developed by examining seventy-five case studies, and they found that by breaking big projects into pieces, they were able to identify points of failure that followed predictable paths. They looked longitudinally at how big projects in government evolved, starting with the Marshal Plan. And they enlisted graduate students from across the nation’s top universities to test what they found in their case studies against the book’s framework.

Through the case studies emerged the book’s seven “deadly traps,” which can hinder projects across the policy spectrum. One of the most prevalent and damaging traps was the “Design-free Design.” Exemplified by the California legislature’s decision to deregulate the state’s electricity system, the design of the policy was good enough to pass the legislature, Eggers said, but missed when it came to be put into practice. The policy passed with bipartisan support, but the bills implementation resulted in blackouts and the unseating of then Governor Gray Davis.

Another area of reoccurring problems centered on a problem dubbed the “Complacency Trap.” The complacency trap “is about reevaluation of programs and processes, once they’ve gone through the lifecycle,” Eggers said. “After idea, design, and implementation, you need to reevaluate and often times that’s not done in a meaningful way.”

According to the numerous federal employees and leaders surveyed in the book, Mr. Eggers said the number one problem was an increase in administrative and bureaucratic constraints. He said many of those younger government workers question weather they will they be able to make a difference or if there continue to be multiple and insurmountable levels of bureaucracy between them and their cabinet-level bosses.

“Information hording can also be a big problem when it comes to the execution of large initiatives,” he said.

But this is where technology and the networked government are starting to show real promise, Eggers indicated. “The line-level [of government bureaucracy] knows when things go badly first. But the real-time Web makes it possible for those flags to be raised much more quickly. Tech is moving at an exponential rate in terms of change,” he said.

Back to the future

In his closing statements yesterday, CTO Chopra made a call to those same line workers, at the Veteran’s Administration, at the Social Security Administration, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Homeland Security. He asked them to think about those sets of projects they are working on that would benefit from public support and engagement. “You have the chance to really see the potential [of your projects] realized if you participate in the tools we’re setting in front of you,” CTO Chpra said.

“There is no doubt that CIO Kundra and CTO [Aneesh] Chopra are innovative and reaching out to state/local government, and private sector in a very exciting way,” Mr. Eggers said in response to a question about the increased cooperation between federal and state government.

“Looking at building a platform and letting others build applications – it’s really an interesting way in thinking about government.”

For more on “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…Getting Big Things Done in Government,” visit this website, or to purchase, click here.

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