Integrated Improvement Initiatives: Addressing Both the COMPLICATED and COMPLEX Challenges of Government

Following is my submission to the challenge on improving Federal government performance management, processes, and outcomes.  The opening points are not on the submission itself, but provide additional context and background.


So, a few key concepts, in no special order:

..the dominant discourse, or paradigm, in government management today is essentially that of goals and measures. This is the basis for GPRAMA, and in fact harkens back to the Management By Objectives model, taught to Fed managers for years by OPM and OMB.

..Einstein famously noted that “there are things that are easy to measure that are not important. There are important things that can not be measured.”

..our predominant culture focuses on the things that are easy to measure. These are mainly outputs (how many or how much). We have a harder time with outcome measures (how well..) because these are inherently harder to measure.

..everyone knows that many of the policies and programs of government are in fact clearly complex. Middle East peace. Teen abuse of prescription drugs. Development of highly complicated IT systems. National health(care).

..everyone knows that measuring outcomes in these complex programs, policies, and processes, is difficult if not impossible.

..and yet… Stakeholders and managers commonly treat what are truly complex, and difficult to measure, challenges/processes/programs, as if they were the sort of technical and complicated problems that can be easily controlled and measured. the 2013 GAO report noted, a small percentage of Federal agencies currently uses traditional methods for policy and program assessment. Fewer still use the analytical data to drive improvement. Although the GAO report mentions him in a footnote, nowhere does GAO acknowledge or recommend the use of Michael Quinn Patton’s Developmental Evaluation methods in addition to traditional formative or summative methods.


To transform Federal agency performance, I believe we need…

..a Presidential mandate for a SUSTAINED COMMITMENT TO IMPROVEMENT. Everyone empowered. Everyone informed. Everyone aligned. Everyone involved. Everyone responsible. Everyone providing feedback and data. Everyone learning and adapting continuously as needed.

..a core methodology that is built not on a single improvement architecture, but on a short set of core operating principles (small teams as the basic unit of change. Top leadership support and involvement. Decisions informed by quantitative and qualitative data wherever available. Decisions by consensus. Etc.).

..implementation through open collaboration and partnership between management and union leaders. Change processes built on the foundations of trust and full. Engagement. Empowerment, responsibility, and accountability on both labor and management sides.

..the recognition that not all processes, policies, programs, and problems are the same. There are two basic types as described by Harvard’s Ron Heifetz. Technical, and Adaptive. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework goes further, with Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic domains for our challenges. Critically, each has its own optimal way of responding. Federal agency leaders must learn the differences, and the various methods and tools now in use globally, to address each type of problem in its own fashion.

..the commitment to relentless open and honest gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data on process results. Yes, the stuff of GPRA- in those cases where we can establish that a given program or process even has the capability of achieving its stated or assigned goal. But also narrative and related qualitative data, that is best interpreted by human sensor networks- the people working in the system (and note the connection here to the actual people-centric Toyota Production System, which is the presumed basis for current Lean practice).

..the use of both traditional (formative or summative) assessment methods ONLY in cases of Simple and Complicated processes/programs, and Developmental evaluation, with its constant loops of feedback, reflection/analysis, and adaptive change in theory, goals, and measures as needed.

This is a critically-needed paradigm change. It does in fact reflect an underlying reality that has always been present, and which everyone knows in fact. But it is easier to set simple and allegedly measurable goals, and hold people accountable for results, than it is to journey through the ambiguity and uncertainty of influencing outcomes in complex problems.

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