Agencies pull back curtain for peek at how they tackle reform plans

Agencies have kept their reorganization plans fairly close to the chest, but as they prepare to submit the final versions of their reform strategies to the Office of Management and Budget, some of them are showing a few cards around their process and priorities.

The Homeland Security Department collected thousands of employee suggestions. The Small Business Administration drew from senior executive knowledge crafting its plan. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development prioritized transparency at every personnel level.

“DHS took a top-down and bottom-up approach,” said Bridgette Garchek Stone, deputy director of program analysis and evaluation within the office of the chief financial officer. Stone was part of an Aug. 9 panel at the Center for Organizational Excellence’s Agency Reform Summit in Washington.

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“First, we had to take in the public comments from OMB, and we asked our dozen components and they brought in their top two or three large ideas,” Stone said. “But most importantly we wanted a grassroots effort, so we had our deputy secretary [Elaine Duke] reach out and solicit input from all employees over a one-week period of time. We were able to elicit about 2,400 ideas from our 250,000 folks in Homeland Security. Out of all of those ideas, we were able to look at the concepts and cull those ideas down to about 36 issues. From there, it was really an affinity exercise where we saw themes from the public, from the employees and from the leadership. And then we down-selected from that point, ultimately ending with five key cross-component issues within DHS and three key interagency issues, and then a host of single component reform plan ideas. So we did turn back to our individual components and charged them to develop their own reform plan to complement the agencywide plan.”

SBA formed subcommittees comprised of senior executives and volunteers, to study specific areas where SBA can improve, and then report back with their recommendations to an executive advisory council.

“Based off that information, we made our recommendations to the administrator,” said SBA Chief Operating Officer Joseph Loddo. “The end result being nine recommendations that follow the theme the administrator presented, which was: what is small business belongs with the small business administration. There were 34 other recommendations related to program offices, and then eight recommendations that the administrator could implement immediately. As a result of that, we have a very definitive plan that we presented to OMB in two stages, one on the multi-agencies and then one on the 34 recommendations.”

For HUD leaders, there are three levels you have to engage in the reorganization process, said David Eagles, the department’s COO.

The first is rethinking career and political employee accountability, and doing a better job of simplifying the performance management process. The second level involves the 100-200 or so “key influencers” under SES, who normally drive morale and change in an organization. The third level is the front-line workforce.

“There’s a lot we can do to build a lot of energy in the organization around this plan,” Eagles said. “To the organization, this is not about reform or management or an executive order, this is about the direction that this organization’s taking.”

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Tone from the top

Agencies in June submitted their reform plans to OMB as part of the governmentwide reorganization plan directed by the Trump administration. Last month, OMB was set to meet with CFO Act agencies to offer feedback and point out areas where immediate action could be taken.

Final reform plans are due to OMB by September as part of the 2019 budget proposal.

All three agency officials who spoke on the reform summit panel said employee buy-in was key to a successful reorganization.

Stone said at DHS, it’s been about “using small actions to signal big actions.”

“Thankfully, our deputy secretary — now our acting secretary — has been so highly engaged,” Stone said. “The tone from the top has been so critical. So she continues to get out there, she’s got a listening tour, she’s continuing to listen to folks. And from those very small ideas that come in, where she and we can take action, we’re taking action immediately to gain the confidence and trust in our employees; that when we say we’re going to reform and change, that we’re actually going to do it.”

SBA has found it challenging to share information about the plan because the recommendations sent to OMB are still pre-decisional, Loddo said, so leadership can’t really engage staff until it gets the go-ahead from the White House.

“We have not communicated the recommendations to the staff,” Loddo said. “What we are doing is building out a communications plan, that would not only involve communicating with the SBA employees, but also we have the issue about the union, we have our appropriators, we have our small business committees, we have a lot of people that we need to communicate with. But we can’t pull that trigger in terms of communications until we know that the Office of Management and Budget has endorsed our recommendations.”

HUD has also hit that communication pothole, Eagles said. But many of the ideas floating out there are ones that have already been sitting on the shelf.

“This is a whole broader issue with government,” Eagles said. “It’s never a vision issue, or an idea issue, it’s always an execution issue. So we’re spending a lot of time rethinking how we actually get these things done. That’s where the rubber hits the road. The idea part, getting those ideas on paper, setting up a governance process, the PMOs, you can set your watch to that. It’s an execution problem over time to get these things done. That’s where we’re spending a lot of our time and effort to say how can we be laser-focused over the next 18 months exclusively on this plan. Then we’ve got to reinvent ourselves again, we need another reform plan in 18-24 months to essentially recharge ourselves and build that next phase of transformation at our agency.”

Seeing results

How will agencies like HUD, SBA and DHS know they’re on the right track for accomplishing their reform plans?

For Loddo, it will be about budgets activities, outputs and outcomes.

“For each of these recommendations, we want to see that flow,” Loddo said. “So that we know that these recommendations are going to benefit the small businesses of our nation, as well as make it more efficient and effective for the staff that works at SBA.”

Eagles said HUD is also outcome focused, and wants to set very clear metrics, almost like board of director-level scorecards used in the private sector.

“A lot of these are going to be multi-year initiatives, so you’ve got to be very creative with how you build in some quick wins and celebrations ” Eagles said. “Part of the plan when we do kick it off, is that in 30 days you’ll see results.”

Stone said at DHS it’s important to integrate reform issues with the strategic plan framework.

“In DHS, we exercise the planning, programming and budget execution system, and we look at strategic reviews and performance at the end of the year to sort of feed into the plan,” Stone said.  “As we go through this reform, we will be taking that process and that decision and that governance element and carrying these issues through that. So we’ll evaluate at the end of the year what made us better in this particular reform issue.”