DHS, DoD strive for new strategy: be smarter with less

Friday - 8/9/2013, 5:52am EDT

Agencies are constantly being asked to do more with less or to innovate with less. But some senior agency officials are done using that cliché.

Instead, the idea that is starting to take hold across government is be smarter with less.

"I always say, we have to do the right thing with less. This notion that we will do everything that we do today, we are just going to find a way to do it with less says that everything is equally important, and we will just find ways to do everything we currently do in our portfolio and do it cheaper. It's absolutely the wrong way to think about it in my mind," said Rafael Borras, the undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security. "We've got to be able to begin to make choices that require discipline to say, 'what are the high value add? Where is the low risk associated with the investment? And where you have very low value, very high risk, dump it.' Can I get more plain that that? Dump it."

Borras, who spoke as part of a panel discussion sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton Thursday in Washington, said this approach is true not just within any one agency, but across the government. He said there are programs that need to be ended or severely rescoped.

DHS isn't alone in rethinking how it expends resources on programs.

Federal officials say the budget environment — with or without sequestration — is leading agencies to come to grips with the idea that no matter how much they cut, no matter how much they work to become more efficient, they still will not have enough people or money to get everything done.

Carrots, sticks or data

Despite the fact that Congress has given DHS ever-increasing budgets over the last decade and the agency didn't have to worry about furloughs in the face of sequestration, Borras said changing how employees think about programs is more important than ever.

The ability to change behavior can be achieved through carrots and sticks, the panel said.

The current budget environment almost precludes agencies from cash incentives, and the panel said disincentives are less optimal.

But the other way, according to Thad Allen, the former head of the Coast Guard and now executive vice president at Booz Allen, is through data.

Allen said putting data out within the agency and to the public is a powerful way to get people to change behavior.

Borras said DHS has been focusing on improving its data for the last few years. He said when he came to DHS in 2010, the agency had a 30 percent data accuracy rate. Now, Borras said, it's closer to 80 percent, which lets senior officials make better, more informed decisions.

Borras said along with data, agencies need discipline to make tough decisions. DHS has put such a discipline in place over the last few years.

"We do have a much more robust acquisition review, investment review process," he said. "So, while of course I would love to see more programs within the components of DHS make those choices themselves — and they are beginning to do that — but more often than not, they are coming up to the acquisition review board and we are looking across the broad spectrum of portfolios and saying, 'you either really ought to look at the original basis for this program, or you ought to work with a similar or related program…and look at combining those two programs into one rather than having two separate programs, because we can't afford it and we really want a common architecture when we build out this.'"

Clear strategy, defined outcomes

The Defense Department is facing similar challenges as DHS, but on a grander scale.

Beth McGrath, the deputy chief management officer for DoD, said part of the discipline is having a clear strategy to achieve defined outcomes.

"It really is about how do we optimize the investment of the organization to accomplish the mission we are asked to accomplish," she said. "A great way of really putting everything on the table is actually putting everything on the table in a transparent way so you have a leadership forum that says, 'What do we as an organization need to accomplish? How do we get there? What investments are we doing to make?' It will mean we will have to shed some of the stuff we already have."