By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Imagine Jim, a 49-year-old federal worker in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jim does the best he can, working long hours to process disability compensation claims for veterans, but the backlog is growing. He needs training on new software, a travel budget to learn about smart pilot programs outside Washington and authority to work with nonprofit groups so that he can learn new techniques and identify potential hires.
Alas, Jim has none of those things. So the backlog grows longer, and Jim grows frustrated.
Now imagine thousands of Jims scattered throughout dozens of federal agencies, and you understand what keeps Linda J. Bilmes and W. Scott Gould up at night. In their new book, The People Factor, Bilmes and Gould offer the archetype of Jim and argue that antiquated hiring systems, the wave of baby-boomer retirements and talented young people's lack of interest in civil-service jobs are conspiring to produce a "malfunctioning," low-tech, low-innovation federal government -- precisely when we're asking it to do more than ever before.
Bilmes, a lecturer at Harvard University, and Gould, a vice president for IBM Global Services, say that the government should emulate companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Pfizer by investing heavily in its key asset: people. Firms that emphasize recruiting, training and evaluation -- often a bureaucratic backwater -- and that reward personal initiative show stronger financial performance. The authors praise recent human resources reforms at the Defense Logistics Agency and the Government Accountability Office to show that it can happen in government, too.
Bilmes and Gould estimate that investing $21 billion over 10 years in the government workforce would save $225 billion to $600 billion in improved productivity, reduced waste and fraud and stronger supervision of outside contracts. Not a shabby return, if they're right.
We may have a chance to find out. Gould is slated to become deputy secretary of the VA, in charge of day-to-day operations. But as he said in Senate testimony last Tuesday, "Transformation of large organizations is hard work, rarely ever complete." Maybe he'll figure out a way to cut down the backlog for veterans' claims -- and help Jim at the same time.