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Lessons of the past can help Trump learn how to run a government

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President Donald Trump launched the White House Office of American Innovation this week with a goal that previous administrations have pursued for decades: Fix government by harvesting ideas from the world of business.

Given the tech-driven transformation of the economy over the past decade, there now exists a huge gap between public and private operations, and an equally large opportunity for government to boost efficiency.

“We should have excellence in government,” Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said March 26 in an interview in his West Wing office. “The government should be run like a great American company.”

History offers some important lessons for those looking to improve the basic managerial competence of government. After all, Trump is not the first president to address this problem.

Over the last 60 years, many presidents’ administrations have tried various approaches to make government more effective: from Harry S. Truman’s Hoover Commission of the 1940s to Ronald Reagan’s Grace Commission, from Reinventing Government of the 1990s to Barack Obama’s push for digitization through the U.S. Digital Service and 18F.

These prior efforts have been met with mixed success. Heeding the lessons of history can help Trump’s White House Office of American Innovation better achieve its ambitious goals.

1) Understand the difference between government and business.

A business perspective is helpful in seeing what can be achieved, but there are unique factors that make rapid change more difficult in government. Our system of checks and balances ensures that big undertakings require a host of “permissionings.” Following the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act website, Obama pointed to archaic administrative processes, saying “How we purchase technology in the federal government is cumbersome, complicated and outdated.” Such rules often promote important democratic values, but they come at a cost. These regulatory and legal constraints, from personnel rules to procurement practices, act like the hundreds of tiny ropes tying up the sleeping giant Gulliver. Successfully deploying commercial insights therefore requires a degree of ‘bilingualism’ — the ability to translate business practices to government.

2) Engage civil servants in the exercise.

Convened in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, the Grace Commission’s 161 senior business leaders spent two years examining the federal government for ways to eliminate waste. But the group’s 2,500 recommendations failed to spark the reform and cost-savings that Reagan had anticipated. Why? Without participation from career civil servants, the Commission lacked the insider’s perspective about which reforms were actually workable. And without buy-in from senior civil servants, it lacked stakeholders committed to making the recommendations a reality.

3) Develop a public relations plan to shape perception and drive public support.

Perhaps the most successful of all federal reorganizations, President Harry S. Truman’s Hoover Commission represents the largest reorganization of the federal government in modern times. It created much of the federal structure that exists today, including the Cabinet system, the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration. Hundreds of its proposals became law, and it achieved $7 billion in savings — back when a billion was still a lot of money.

One key to the success of the Hoover Commission was the massive public relations effort, guided by Madison Avenue, to win public support. The initiative’s PR arm, the “Citizens Committee for the Hoover Report” at one point claimed more than 25 million Americans as members. The commission used public concerns about big government and communism to gain popular support, spreading the sentiment that if the country could succeed at reorganizing itself, it could rise to any challenge.

4) Change the default status of government programs.

In the private sector, outdated practices go the way of the buggy whip, making room for new approaches. In government, new programs pile on top of old ones. Each time government perceives a new need, a new agency is created — but few are ever eliminated. This tends to create a hodgepodge of overlapping institutions, some with redundant or obsolete missions.

One way to fix this is to change the default status from keep to eliminate. A number of states, notably Texas and Florida, have sunset legislation that decrees that each agency within a government will exist only for a limited period — perhaps six, eight or 10 years. At the end of that period, the agency is disbanded unless the legislature takes action to renew its term. Over the years, the Texas Sunset Commission has eliminated dozens of ineffective programs, redesigned regulatory bodies, and prodded agencies to become more efficient in their operations.

5) Properly resource the initiative to the finish.

The Clinton administration’s National Performance Review (NPR), a.k.a. Reinventing Government, started off strong. About 250 government employees were loaned from their agencies to work on teams that conducted the review, starting in March 1993, and there were a number of early successes. Unfortunately, after the publication of the initial report, the NPR office was reduced to a very small permanent staff overseeing loaned government employees on short stints. This created too much turnover, and many ideas never made it through to completion.

The challenges we face today are big, yes, but what’s more important is our government’s ability to successfully execute whatever strategy it undertakes. In this sense, Trump has chosen an area seriously in need of modernization. The U.S. federal government is largely operating with structures designed for the mid-20th century. From finance to HR, from procurement to IT, these largely hidden structures act like an anchor on the ship of state.

Our democratic system wasn’t designed for rapid wholesale change. But our government needn’t be a slave to the past, either. Real change, at once disruptive and constructive, is possible. Studying the lessons of the past can help shape the government of the future.

William Eggers and John O’Leary are leaders at the Deloitte Center for Government Insights and the authors of the Washington Post bestseller, “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.”