Speeding up Government: Responding to the Continuing Challenge

Tuesday - 5/18/2010, 1:12pm EDT

Written by

Paul R. Lawrence, Ernst & Young
Mark A. Abramson, Leadership Inc.


Over the last year, we have had the unique experience of talking with new political executives about their time in government. In wide-ranging conversations, we discussed their initial impressions of their department or agency. All those interviewed to date were impressed with the quality of the civil servants with whom they work. A few said that frankly they had come into office with somewhat low expectations for the civil service. Those expectations, they said, were wrong and quickly disproven.

There was, however, one area in which the majority of the political executives interviewed found the career civil service lacking: speed. Many of the leaders commented on the "speed" issue, but few had yet taken specific actions to speed up the bureaucracy.

On May 6, 2010, one political appointee - Department of Labor Assistant Secretary for Veterans' Employment and Training Raymond Jefferson - responded directly to the speed challenge by launching a "100-Day Sprint." Over the next 100 days, we will be following the "Sprint" in this column and reporting on his progress. In describing the Sprint, Assistant Secretary Jefferson said, "Three words exemplify the leadership approach we are taking at VETS - innovation, excellence and transformation. We are transforming our culture and programs, benchmarking ourselves to best practices, and innovating to address gaps and produce the best possible outcomes."

There were several driving forces behind Jefferson's decision to launch the "Sprint." The first was that the current economic conditions of the nation were adversely impacting the employment of veterans. Given the economic crisis facing the nation, Jefferson decided that the agency could no longer keep doing what it was doing. In a "town hall" meeting to his employees, Jefferson said, "If we keep doing what we have always done in the past, we are likely to keep getting the same results. We need to do better and in order to do better, we must change and do things differently."

The concept of the "Sprint" was partly driven by Jefferson's experience as an Army officer and a West Point Graduate, as well as a management consultant at McKinsey. The military is used to the concept of "mobilizing" to accomplish specific goals. The concept of mobilization is seldom used, however, on the civilian side of government. In many ways, the 100-Day Sprint is a mobilization of the employees of the Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) to "move out" quickly on four fronts:

  • Improving current programs
  • Launching new initiatives
  • Improving management practices in the agency
  • Developing talent in the agency
There were many components in each of the above four areas on which the agency will focus on dramatic improvement within the next 100 days, with specific deadlines and goals. A few of the major 100-Day Sprint initiatives include:
  • Transforming the Transition Assistance Program to be relevant to the today's transitioning Service Member (TSM)
  • Modernizing the case management process for all veterans having claims under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USRRA)
  • Improving employer outreach to increase veteran hiring by launching a pilot project and formalizing relationships with private sector and non-profit organizations
  • More effective outreach to" hard to reach" veteran populations through creation of a rural veteran outreach program
  • Increase training opportunities for young veterans (age 20-24) by launching a demonstration program with the Department of Labor Job Corps program

In addition to these programmatic goals, Jefferson realized that improvement in the agency's performance would also require the organization to get its own house in order. In the town hall meeting, Jefferson presented a list of ten specific management goals, including the creation of a Performance Action Center which will present visually both the goals of the 100-Day Sprint and the veterans served by the organization. Finally, the Sprint also contains a series of talent development goals for the organization.

There are specific deadlines for the majority of the initiatives, many of which are to be finished by August 13, 2010 - 100 days after the launch of the Sprint. There are also specific outcomes associated with many of the goals.

Many of the executives we interviewed concluded that government was very good at doing what it usually does. The challenge is to get their organization to "stretch" and speed up. By launching the 100-Day Sprint, Jefferson was able to get his organization to focus on a set of specific activities - over and above their normal programmatic duties. The initiatives within the 100-Day sprint were jointly developed by Jefferson and the agency's senior leadership, including the VETS regional directors. At the town hall meeting, the regional directors were enthusiastic and supportive of the Sprint, even though it came during a period in which their workloads are high.

We will be following the 100-Day Sprint and reporting back on its progress and achievement of the goals it set forth to accomplish.

Paul R. Lawrence is Partner, Ernst & Young, focusing on public service. His e-mail: paul.lawrence@ey.com.

Mark A. Abramson is President of Leadership Inc. His e-mail:mark.abramson@ thoughtleadershipinc.com.