In charting a path forward, the savvy public manager will certainly be conceded some private anxiety. After all, the challenges on the horizon are almost Homeric in nature. Granted, there aren’t the warring legions and vicious monsters of Homer’s Iliad awaiting us, but make no mistake, there are storm clouds approaching. Two observations prevail. First, the global economic downturn of the past three years heralded, whether one agrees with it or not, an era of massive government spending to shore up sluggish economies. Second, anemic growth combined with massive debt in many countries (including the United States) have also taken a toll. It’s clear, whether one agrees or not, that the public support, and hence political will, for continued high-spending levels has decreased dramatically, putting extraordinary pressure on government executives worldwide to rein in spending across mission, and especially, mission-support areas.
Aggravated by this spending constraint, executives are also facing long-term structural fiscal imbalances across most major G20 economies; an aging and retirement-eligible workforce that comes with high legacy benefit costs; outdated networking and other workforce shaping strategies; and most importantly, the need to focus and prioritize government initiative. How will leaders proceed through this worsening storm and into a period of sustainable economic growth? How will we produce better outcomes at lower costs for other citizens and other stakeholders? Where do we go for—if not answers—helpful references, benchmarks, ideas, and best practices?
One place we shouldn’t go is the past. As we worked with government leaders over the past year about the challenges and opportunities ahead, most acknowledged that “looking to the past for what works and what doesn’t is not a useful exercise.” Indeed, the best way to build the agency of tomorrow is not by starting with the carcass of legacy systems that currently define our organizations. Rather, it is by shaping visions and strategies for what outcomes our agencies should provision; developing objective, transparent dashboards—tracking systems—that enable honest conversations about performance and priorities; and finally, rethinking management philosophy and associated work rules for tomorrow’s public sector workforce.