Clues in identifying a broken program

Receding revenues and budget cuts put stress on programs and public service executive managers. However, there may be opportunities within that stress to correct serious structural or organizational problems. Feather O’Connor Houston wrote an interesting article on key clues to identify broken public sector programs –ones that need improving. (
She defines a public-sector program that is broken when it underperforms due to lack of focus on outcomes and results, indifferent leadership or low imagination quotient. Feather lists a few clues that suggest serious process re-engineering might be in order:

1 When asked, “How do you know how you’re doing?” The usual answer is, “We don’t get complaints.” For them, it’s all about administrative process, and success is having no major service failures this month instead of asking themselves what’s working and what’s not.

2 When asked basic budget and operations questions, managers don’t pull out well-thumbed reports, but instead rely on ad hoc, hand-written notes because information systems aren’t providing them with the information they need. Managers should understand the cost drivers in their programs and be able to articulate the issues facing them.

3 Challenges to improve performance are countered with “We need more staff,” and challenges to reduce costs are countered with, “That is out of our control.” Thinking proactively about service prioritization, questioning mission creep that drain energy and resources, and partnering with other agencies to solve shared problems are frequently given short shrift in favor of placing blame and insisting there’s no other way.

4 There are too many hands on the steering wheel. Is it clear who’s responsible for performance? An organization answering to multiple levels of governance is likely a place where inertia or administrative paralysis has marginalized any striving for impact and results.

5 The public executive managers are thinking in silos. They can’t describe, nor seem to understand, how other agencies affect their work nor how their work affects others. The interconnected agencies have not acknowledged nor acted upon their interdependence for outcomes or budgets.


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