Locke infuses new performance culture at Commerce

Friday - 6/3/2011, 8:35am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Gary Locke's last day as the secretary of Commerce still is to be determined. But Locke, who has been nominated to be the ambassador to China, said no matter when he eventually does move on, the agency will be far different than when he got there.

Take the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), Locke said the average length of time for the agency to process patent applications was 38 months. It's now down to 28 months and Locke expects the average time to drop further to less than 20 months.

And just last week, PTO met its stretch goal of reducing its application backlog to less than 700,000. Even though it was more than seven months after the initial deadline, Locke said he applauded the progress because it was such a stretch goal.

Locke said PTO is one of several examples of how Commerce has used performance management to address long-standing challenges.

"No matter where I've been, it's been my conviction that when leaders set out to improve operations and performance we have to set super-high performance goals, we have to set super-high stretch goals, perhaps even unattainable goals," he said Thursday during a speech at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington. "We have to do that. We have to set these goals to force people to re-imagine exactly how they do their jobs or the functions they are performing, almost blow up the entire system, start from scratch with a clean slate as opposed to tinkering around the edges or on the margins."

This management philosophy starts with developing three broad management improvement priorities -- customer service, organization excellence and workforce excellence-and three specific initiatives.

Locke said the specific ones, including priority based budgeting, acquisition reform and improved customer service, have impacted Commerce in a real way.

"For the 2012 budget, the department completely changed how we approach our budgeting," Locke said. "We prioritized key investments to achieve specific goals. That may sound basic but it's really the first time the department ever engaged in this strategy. It really forced us to make some tough choices about which programs to invest in and which programs to reduce."

He added Commerce will reduce or eliminate 16 programs that could save $250 million.

Commerce also is reducing its non-essential administrative costs, from which it expects to save $142 million, including $57 million in acquisition costs.

"Of these savings, $39 million will be reinvested by our bureaus to actually strengthen some of their critical programs," he said. "Much of these savings will be ongoing, reoccurring savings that will help us for years to come."

Around acquisition reform, Locke said Commerce is centralizing activities to save money and improve how the agency buys products and services.

"We've put together teams that are populated with people from the different bureaus so that there is collaboration and sharing of best practices, and really the ability to understand some of the common challenges they all face and why the acquisition reform process will actually benefit everybody," he said.

Locke said it hasn't been easy as the bureaus pushed back on one of the first pilots to buy enterprise software licenses.

"That first example with just a limited number of computers, we got an 88 percent reduction in cost," he said. "So, you start a little bit on the small scale and people see the benefits, and it whets the appetite for even more projects, even more collaboration and initiatives."

Under the third priority to improve customer service, Locke said Commerce expanded its CommerceConnect program to 16 regions around the country and more are coming.

"It's a one-stop for businesses that streamlines access to Commerce services and the different solutions we have for businesses," he said. "It really began with a simple observation, at a time of economic turmoil, a small or medium-sized company doesn't have the time...to travel and go to different offices to meet up with Commerce officials."

The agency launched CommerceConnect as a pilot in 2009 where it cross-trained employees in different business areas so they could answer all the questions for businesses.

Locke said the key to all of these efforts is not just getting buy-in from the career staff and mid-managers, but instilling pride and ownership in these changes.

"The top people can sketch out like an architectural drawing on a napkin or on a piece of paper the bold strokes or images of what we are trying to achieve," he said. "But the line staff, the career people, have to put in the detailed drawings of how we get from here to there."

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