Make Government Effective Again: A Guide

With the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, there is a raging debate about how a country or government of any size should be run. There has been a persistent narrative about how politicians are decrepit and business executives could do everything better. We hear this constantly from Trump and his followers, but is it really true?

Politicians have always played a special role in civilizations. The role itself represents the oldest form of executive. Today, however, when we think of “Getting Things Done,” we think of business leaders. In the past, that was the government’s role. Businesses were important in the day to day lives of people, acting as sources of food and other necessities, but, due to a variety of restrictions, some technological, they were never able to grow past a certain size and importance. Politicians were the most significant figures operating on a national and sometimes global scale.

But, politicians and leaders of the past were very different than today’s business executives. They didn’t have much (or any) accountability. Who is going to tell the King that he’s doing a bad job? Sure, maybe his second in command will be able to muster enough support to oppose and kill him. However, In general, most people could do nothing to enforce accountability; certainly not to the scale of today’s public corporations which have to work around shareholders, disgruntled employees and the threat of outside takeover.

Today, governments still have much less accountability for goals and plans than public corporations do. They do have the ultimate accountability tool, the election, but there is no clear way to compare results between two different politicians or parties. It is all based on emotional appeal.

Governments often don’t want accountability or change because:

  1. They’re monopolies. They control all the tax revenue and services in one area. Citizens don’t have a choice without picking up and moving which is often inconvenient if not impossible due to financial circumstances.
  2. Low Motivation for Change. They attract workers who like stability and oppose continuous change. By definition a “Government Job” is a stable one.
  3. Organizational Design. In many cases, government systems have been designed to keep certain hierarchies in place and forces in power.

Corporations produce yearly reports that are shared with shareholders. These reports include financial projections as well as strategic plans and initiatives. Certain parts of the government do make similar disclosures (e.g. US Publishing Office Annual Report) and there is a yearly financial report. But, in general these are individual agencies providing updates and no comprehensive plan is ever published. The candidates typically offer plans that are expressed in emotional appeals rather than specifics. Case in point, Donald Trump.

Much of the world is saying that that Donald Trump isn’t a politician. He’s an “outsider”. While it may be true that he is not a politician of the “Beltway Crowd”, he is a masterful politician.

From Google, a politician is:

  1. a person who is professionally involved in politics, especially as a holder of or a candidate for an elected office.
  2. a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.

Whether you agree with his policies or not, you will agree that Donald trump is “a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.”

There is no reason to believe that Donald Trump will break the mold of politicians refusing to be held accountable to specifics.

In the US, the closest we get to an annual report is the President’s State of the Union address, which is information-lacking when compared to the typical corporate annual report provided to shareholders. Everything in the political realm is open to interpretation — even things that should not be — and “facts” are often distorted to benefit or disadvantage politicians and political parties while the interests of the public often fall behind the aspirations and objectives of more influential powers.

There is nothing comprehensive that provides a holistic view of the United States and the goals of the US government going forward.

The reason for this is that people don’t want complexity. We don’t want to have to wade through a pile of statistics to decide whether our leaders are doing a good job. We want to hear the story, even if that story is not true. As long as the story makes us feel good and isn’t immediately contradicted by our surroundings we are lulled by the emotional tirade.

That said, there are at least two examples of decent accountability in government: one of a politician holding himself accountable, another of an organization holding politicians accountable.

Michael Bloomberg Tracked Promises

Starting in his first term in 2001, Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, kept a list of all of the promises that he made. At the end of each term he would then publish the results of these promises; how many were done, launched, revised, or not done. The first time he did this in 2003 it sparked a minor media frenzy with articles in the NY Times and other publications. In 2007, it was barely covered with just one easily accessible article. In 2013, with his final term nearing completion, the only available source was the NYC.gov website.

What does this mean? It means that although there are some politicians that care about this, it doesn’t seem like the public or media actually cares. So much so in fact, that the Wikipedia article on Michael Bloomberg and his personal website both fail to mention the list of promises.

At the end of his tenure, Bloomberg had fulfilled 542 of 611 (over 88%) of the promises he had made in the 2001, 2005 and 2009 mayoral campaigns. If you’d like to read through the full list you’re welcome to do so here.

Politifacts Holds Obama and Trump Accountable

In a similar vein but only being done by an external agency is Politifact’s OBAMETER and TRUMP-O-METER. These are lists of promises that each candidate made during their campaigns; 533 by Obama and 102 by Trump.

Of the 533 promises Politifact attributes to Obama, Politifact claims he has fulfilled 48.2%, compromised on 27.6% and has not kept 24.2%.

Trump, understandably, has not been rated on all of his promises yet.

Although this is a step in the right direction, it is shocking that this is as far as it goes when tracking political candidates, especially at the presidential level.

But, on further examination it’s easy to see why: It’s just too damn hard to understand whether Bloomberg or Obama are actually doing good work. Tracking the promises is only step 1, they need to be interpreted and made relevant to the people. Only then will people understand the story the true story behind the data.

Bloomberg doesn’t break his promises down by category in any easily digestible way, instead, they’re presented as a 146 page pdf document of a table. Although Politifact does assign categories to promises, it’s done in a haphazard and non-structured way. Categories that are put on the same playing field include Agriculture, Autism, Corporations and Weather, just to name a few. It’s extremely difficult to get an idea of what each candidate cares about with as much resonance as an emotional speech.

What ends up happening, is that we rely on “experts” to summarize and tell us what our priorities should be. We can’t check these experts in real time because it’s hard for us to understand the details and because the time frames for these promises are often multiple years or decades. It’s hard for our brains to think on that time-frame and even harder to remember which promises were made when. By the time the date of the promised change comes around, we’ve completely forgotten about it or it’s been reframed to be irrelevant.

Politicians want it this way. They want to be held to general words and intentions instead of concrete targets. They would rather give you an hour long “State of the Union” address every year instead of a specific annual report with a review of last years goals, a diagnosis of why they were or weren’t achieved and a prognosis for the next year. That sort of specificity is hard. It’s much easier to simply wave your hands in the air. It’s easy to just respond to “Did you make life better?” with “Well, it’s complicated” instead of just a simple yes or no. Elections can be swayed by how people “feel” more easily than what people think.

It’s really too bad because the private sector has started to make real progress.

Originally, the private sector was only focused on financial results. This accounting-focused methodology has also been adopted by the US government. You can see it in the annual financial report of the US government. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for an organization which is tasked with responsibility of taking care of 318 million people, 3.8 million square miles, and 16.77 trillion in gross domestic product. The US Government has much different responsibilities than just a profit motive.

Now, corporations have realized that they’re not all about short term profit. The cynical way to say this is that they care about long-term profit. But, the result of this is that they must care not just about numbers but also their people, internal operations and clients. They need to utilize more than just financial metrics. If a corporation is to grow in the long term it must take care of all of those factors, otherwise it risks extracting profits now that will destroy the very underlying factors that make it great in the long term.

In the early 1990s, a management professor at Harvard, Robert Kaplan, recognized this gap and developed the balanced scorecard framework. The key difference in his framework over a traditional financial performance management one is a focus on developing metrics from three additional perspectives (rather than just financial) that help the organization plan for the long term.

The four perspective the balanced scorecard takes are:

  1. Client Perspective: As any competent manager knows, if you do not satisfy customers your company will cease to exist. It’s critical to track customer satisfaction and expectations of products.
  2. Internal Perspective: The processes that make daily operations run. Although boring, if these stagnate they can become an impediment on the growth of the organization.
  3. Learning & Growth Perspective: Critically, any organization is just a sum of the people working there. In a knowledge worker world, your people are the company. If you do not focus on their development and growth you will be left behind.
  4. Financial Perspective: Although not singular, financial results do matter and there should be metrics tracked in this area.

The organization should then develop initiatives and targets in each of those four perspectives that comprise its execution plan to achieve long term strategic goals.

This approach has since been adopted by a large swath of the world’s largest companies including BMW, Siemens, UPS, Disney, and Wells Fargo amongst many others.

Returning to the US government, the balanced scorecard approach seems like the ideal way to fill the gap of strategic planning cross-functionally at the executive level in the US Government. In an era where everyone can share their opinion on social media and where the emotional stories told there have absolutely no basis in reality, it would be extremely valuable to convey complex data in a simple resonant way. Measuring government performance across emotionally relevant categories in specific, time bound, non-partisan ways could lead to real change.

It’s easy to see how the four perspectives could be adapted for government:

Due to the complexity of the government such an approach would require many levels of sub-categories. Under each of the four perspectives there would be sub-categories and metrics that would roll up to a top level view.

A typical corporate balanced scorecard implementation is done by the executive team with input from the company’s employees. In the current environment, the executive team is not motivated to do it, but, this doesn’t have to be done at the country wide level. Government planning and accountability can and should be implemented at the State, City, County or Village level. The same tools can be used for any size of government to communicate better with its citizens.

If more governments adopt this sort of framework, they can communicate better with the people and instil a need for planning and accountability that will change the expectations people have of politicians. People care about emotional speeches now because they do not have a good tool for understanding the details of governance. The Balanced Scorecard can be the tool that makes governmental objectives understandable.

We’ve create a template for a governmental balanced scorecard that includes links to more awesome sources on how to build and implement your own balanced scorecard as well as 143 metrics that governments can use to measure their performance. We’ve published it on github so that if you have any changes you’d like to make you are welcome to add them. You can access it here.

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