May 21, 2020
Fee-funded programs provide federal, state, and local governments with a cost-effective method of financing a range of government services, from access to national parks to securing patents and trademarks. But when user fees drop precipitously due to an unexpected event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, agency leaders must have effective strategies in place to maintain the organization’s financial equilibrium.
While fee-funded government programs may resemble private-sector operations, they are typically established for the purpose of cost recovery, not profit generation, and can provide a critical source of funding beyond taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress. User fees are a good alternative to taxes because they are paid solely by those who request and receive those specific services or benefits. They also promote efficient cost allocations or cost assignments, whereby consumers pay an appropriate share of the costs of services received, which helps governments fully fund their general operations.
Fees can also be politically contentious, placing the onus on governments for greater cost transparency, rate stability, and solvency. The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting this dynamic and bringing unforeseen challenges to the established cost structures.
May 11, 2020
Government leaders need to think more deeply about effective management both in the current historical moment and for the longer-term. Understanding how well agencies are managed now would be a useful baseline for incoming leaders and for setting priorities for a new administration. Developing benchmarks to measure effective management would be useful to assess how agencies perform over time, how they compare with other agencies, and what best practices exist for potential adoption.
A new report by University of Illinois-Chicago academics James Thompson and Alejandra Medina provides a roadmap for how to develop measures for assessing well-managed agencies, something that has always seemed intangible. The report’s recommendations provide a foundation on which agency leaders can build agendas to improve their management quality.
More broadly, for government reformers, the report’s proposed framework may help implement piecemeal legislative fixes that were passed with good reason and intention but have accumulated to contribute to systemic constraints on innovation and responsiveness. These fixes include creating new management leadership positions like chief management officers, new administrative routines such as quarterly reporting of progress on agency priority goals, or addressing constraints such as limitations on conference spending.
April 28, 2020
Whether we like it or not, preparedness is time and again relegated to the back shelf, where it is “out of sight, out of mind.” The tragic costs of that mindset are vividly clear. While it is not time to point fingers in our current crisis, it is time to start taking notes and to look for opportunities for future improvement.
Policy officials and program managers at all levels of government, as well those in the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will be looking to make changes in their operations. However, we all need to make sure that any adjustments go beyond just treating our symptoms, are well reasoned, and address the root causes of our problems.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen many reports in the media where healthcare providers comment that their hospitals and organizations never saw such a pandemic coming and were not prepared.
April 24, 2020
In a rare and impressive show of bipartisan cooperation, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to help the people and businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. The latest bipartisan bill passed the House yesterday.
The responses of the executive branch, in contrast, have varied widely. Most parts of the executive clearly were unprepared for the pandemic and the economic consequences of the public health measures needed to fight it. With the notable exceptions of the National Institutes of Health and (in most respects) the Federal Reserve, all the agencies responded, however belatedly, by scrambling, stumbling and getting caught up in their own red tape.
In each case, the agencies faced a myriad of decisions about how much they should set aside business as usual to provide help quickly. Those decisions have consequences, both intended and unintended, and some will be mistakes.
April 15, 2020
Over the years many cities and county CIOs have struggled to be part of the enterprise-wide strategic planning process as opposed to being relegated to what was viewed as the chief infrastructure officer – maintaining basic operations and “keeping the lights on.”
During the current COVID-19 crisis, today’s CIO has moved to the forefront and has become essential and appreciated. For the most part, no Disaster Recovery (DR) Plan envisioned a prolonged physical government shut down for more than a few days or a week or two at best. Today, it’s different.
April 15, 2020
Long-time blog readers may remember my frequently expressed enthusiasm for contests (“challenges” in government jargon) as an innovative procurement technique for the government.
The basic idea behind a procurement challenge is that the government announces a problem it seeks to have solved. Anyone may then submit their solution, and the government chooses a winner or winner. When it announces a challenge, the government also specifies a monetary prize (hence the moniker “contest”) and further steps the government might take to support the winner(s).
During the Obama administration, the General Services Administration announced the website Challenge.gov to organize and promote contests. I have blogged about contests since 2009and earlier called them the single-most-important innovation in government contracting in the last decade.
April 14, 2020
Two friends in different states told me similar stories recently about how social distancing was being enforced at parks with relatively isolated hiking trails. Because getting to the trails caused too many people to use the same narrow steps or park their cars too close together, access was blocked for everyone.
Clearly, the government needs to take action in these kinds of situations, which it did, in this case, the way it knows best: by throwing a switch — you are open or you are closed. But when the coronavirus nightmare begins to subside, state and local officials will face difficult decisions about when and how to begin reviving local economies by allowing residents to return to work and visit shops and restaurants. It will be a time for officials to embrace rheostat government, replacing the binary on/off switch with a dimmer. Instead of closing the park, perhaps meter the number of people climbing the steps or parking cars, or even the hours the park is open, to spread out usage.
Nuanced, calibrated use of regulatory powers can help local governments in metering normal life back on.
April 02, 2020
Never has it been more clear that effective intergovernmental arrangements are essential to the health and economic well-being of the American people. The lack of coordinated, nationwide government response to the pandemic is starkly evident.
The overarching objectives of an effective emergency management system are prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. A well-oiled intergovernmental system of emergency management requires everyone involved to understand the part they play in the whole. Governments can and do conduct disaster response well by working separately and together, and with a variety of other non-governmental partners.
Currently, the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control has issued interim guidance for individuals, schools, workplaces, and businesses, but these are advisory, not federal directives. State governors have leapfrogged over federal action to prevent the spread of the virus by limiting gatherings of people and shutting down businesses and community events.
April 01, 2020
Academy Fellow and former Director of the Division of Strategic National Stockpile Greg Burel discusses the current status and utilization of medical equipment from the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile.
March 31, 2020
Some 15 years ago, the Professional Services Council and the Army Materiel Command teamed up on a joint “lessons learned” exercise focused on contracting issues that arose during the first phases of the Iraq war. As we prepared to brief the report to senior Pentagon officials, the commander of AMC suggested to me that we change the title. “Instead of Lessons Learned,” he said, “We should call it Lessons Observed. After all, we haven’t learned a damn thing.”
With the passage of the CARES Act, we are again on the precipice of a massive federal initiative, the largest of its kind ever. Of the $2 trillion called for under the law, agencies will spend billions of dollars on new federal contracts for both ongoing and surge activities. And looking back, many past lessons remain highly relevant. While imperfect analogies, the early days of the Iraq conflict, along with the days following Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 recovery and stimulus, and more, share a number of common traits and do offer some lessons worth keeping front of mind.
First, to paraphrase a military adage, we need to fight as we plan and plan as we fight. As agencies come to grips with their specific roles in the execution of the CARES Act mission, the centrality of industry partnerships is eminently clear. Engaging industry partners from the beginning, sharing objectives, and tapping their creativity and expertise is not just smart management; it’s also essential to finding the best, most efficacious solutions.
March 30, 2020
Sunday afternoon I was looking at the homepage of The New York Times and I saw the headline, "The U.S. Tried to Build a New Fleet of Ventilators. The Mission Collapsed." The subhead was, "As the coronavirus ravages America’s health care system, a canceled federal contract helps explain the acute shortage of medical equipment." (The article also was on the front page of Monday’s Times.) Oh wow, I thought, another government contracting horror story.
And that indeed was how the story was pitched. The efforts "highlight the perils of outsourcing projects with critical public-health implications to private companies," the article states; "their focus on maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis."
But if you look at the story more carefully, the messages are actually very different ones.
March 28, 2020
For weeks, officials in both parties have urged the Trump administration to fight the coronavirus pandemic by invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to encourage and enable manufacturers to produce critical medical equipment — and quickly. The administration’s response has been bizarre. The president authorized using the law, then said it wasn’t needed because the industry is doing enough voluntarily (a claim that clearly isn’t true). Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter T. Gaynor announced Tuesday that the DPA would help get test kits to New York, but later that day reversed course.
March 23, 2020
Under the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
That profound statement raises many questions. What powers does the Constitution delegate to the federal government? What does the Constitution forbid the States to do? If the federal government does not have a certain power, does it devolve to State governments—or to individuals and communities?
These questions are challenging, so it is unsurprising that the relationship between states and their subsidiary local governments has been the subject of ongoing discussions over the entire history of the republic.