The federal government is on the brink of a perfect storm of management challenges. For better or worse, that also presents the nation’s leaders with an opportunity to dramatically reshape how it delivers services, in part by embracing digital technology in new and more powerful ways.

Either way, national leaders moving into new positions at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in the coming few weeks will have to look seriously at real and “virtual” ways of reorganizing federal bureaucracies, say a group of public administration experts.

Their recommendations were contained in two new policy papers – one on “Reorganizing the Federal Government” and the other offering an “IT and Transparency Agenda,” released Thursday by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA).

Recognizing that consolidating duplicative or fragmented programs requires the expenditure of a great amount of political capital, and “may not achieve the desired results,” Allen Lomax, who authored one of the papers, suggested that leaders look at creating a new generation of interagency councils in what he described as a path towards “virtual reorganization.”

These councils would be charged by the President and Congress to pursue “agreed upon national goals.” They would be given appropriate authority and led by an agency head to ensure that multiple program offices work together, and operate transparently.

By developing, and shifting attention to broader national goals, these councils have the potential of reorganizing the work done by various programs, and reducing duplicative efforts, without necessarily “moving boxes around” in the government’s vast organizational chart, said Lomax, who served for many years at the Government Accountability Office. The mixed results of such moves is still evident a decade after Congress’s decision to create the Department of Homeland Security, uprooting and combining 22 federal agencies.

But another factor holding government back is the need to more aggressively embrace technology and transparency, say several former White House and agency administrators who co-wrote a related policy paper.

“The thrust of the papers’s recommendations is to change the way the government does business…and engages citizens,” said Alan Balutis (pictured above), senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco and one of the co-authors. “We put forward here a very aggressive stand,” he said.

Balutis and the paper’s co-authors, which include Dan Chenok, Gary Bass, Frank Reeder and Alan Shark, acknowledge the administration’s Digital Government Strategy released in May.

“But it needs to be turbocharged, and moved forward with a greater degree of immediacy,” said Balutis, speaking at a briefing held at NAPA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters in conjunction with the release of the policy recommendations.

He outlined the paper’s six key recommendations:

  • Issue an action plan for implementing an advanced, coherent vision of digital government, in which “all services that can be provided digitally should be,” said Balutis, and where electronic funds transfer are used for all monetary transactions.
  • Foster a dynamic citizen engagement program, creating a new Federal Office for Citizen Engagement to coordinate initiatives.
  • Reorganize and enhance the role of the Office of the Chief Information Officer within agencies, but also create a Chief Management Officer position within major departments on a fix-year basis to better align IT and business needs and provide greater leadership continuity.
  • Improve IT project management by following specific steps to improve governance, planning and procurement.
  • Rebuild trust in government through greater transparency; and
  • Improve information security while ensuring personal privacy.

David McClure, associate administrator, Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies at U.S. General Services Administration, who spoke at the forum, declined to comment about the paper’s recommendation to create a new office for citizen services.

But he stressed, “it’s very critical to have a dialogue with citizens,” through both physical and virtual gateways. Engaging citizens has “really shown insights,” he said, adding “if we’re going to reorganize, we need to engage the citizens through national dialogues, challenges,” and other means to better understand how best to meet their needs.

“Experience has shown the pubic enjoys the experience of engagement, so long as they believe we’ll act on” what was learned, he said.

At the same time, “We’ve been great about developing best practices and approaches. But we still find it very difficult to implement and execute those projects,” he said.

McClure also reinforced one of the key recommendations of the paper, concerning transparency.

“Transparency is not an end, it’s a means,” he said. “Transparency drives innovation and it drives engagement, he emphasized.

It is also essential for maintaining trust, said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government.

Chenok, who also contributed to a federal cybersecurity policy paper released this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said leaders coming into office need to understand that “transparency is a means to achieving services” but those services must be protected by security. “Security enables long term trust. Without it, trust, and value people put information, can be quickly undermined.”