Center Blog

Making Better Decisions in Transition and Beyond

May 4, 2016

Courtney Liss, Associate, Partnership for Public Service

Photo of Edward DeSeveEdward DeSeve

Today, we’re sharing a Q & A with Edward DeSeve, who has more than 40 years in government service at the local, state and federal level. He is the chair of the National Academy of Public Administration Transition 2016 program as well as the executive-in-residence of the Brookings Executive Education program. We spoke with Ed about his work on our latest presidential transition whitepaper with the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Enhancing the Government’s Decision-Making: Helping Leaders Make Smart and Timely Decisions.”

Can you tell us about the decision-making whitepaper?

The idea stemmed from a forum that both the Partnership and IBM created. We want to give new political leaders as well as career executives a sense of the kinds of decisions that they are going to be confronting and how they might go forward to address those. The transition team and the administration need a set of expectations, and these expectations have to be transmitted through the White House councils and agency leaders by letting everyone know what the decision process is going to look like and why that is important.

Why is it important to lay out the decision process during the transition?

The communication between the incoming administration and the existing career staff and others has to be structured. It can’t be allowed to simply evolve in a loose way. You have to create a decision structure that allows everyone to be on the same page. One of the ways we can do that is by common training. You can indicate to the people coming in that while they don’t need the training, they may need to learn more about what’s going on in the federal government. This continual learning program should look at all of the elements of decision-making from identifying the problems through creating strategies, performance metrics and evidence-based decisions. All of these elements should be put together in a simple, organized way. My friend John Koskinen, who is the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, always says, “Let a thousand flowers bloom in straight rows.” The straight rows are the decision-making frameworks that we talk about.

What recommendations do you have for a new administration looking to implement better decision-making practices?

They should look for individuals with experience in decision-making in multiple environments.

Second, articulate clear linkages between vision, mission, goals, objectives and different organizational roles. Let me give you an example. When Henry Cisneros became secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, he made clear that he wanted to deal with the way public housing was organized and administered in the federal government and in the local governments. That led to what was called it ending public housing as we know it. It led to the demolition of many old, antiquated projects in cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia. This plan was articulated to the career staff people in Washington, to the local housing authorities and to the mayors throughout the country. The goal of changing public housing also was brought to Congress and a program called HOPE VI was created to improve public housing. There was a clear linkage between the vision that Cisneros had and the mission that he took to the local housing authorities. The goal was to eliminate old units, create new units and make sure that people didn’t fall through the cracks. That’s the kind of work that we’re trying to do.

Leaders should be very aware of the complexity of governmental systems and should understand that there should be continued strategic reviews within their agencies as well as collaborative linkages. Jane Fountain did a paper for the Partnership earlier on collaboration, but there should be a clear linkage into the collaborative structures that are out there. It takes a network to run a federal program these days.

When I ran the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during President Obama’s first term, the first thing I did was to create a single responsible individual in each of the 50 states and each of the territories as well as in the federal agencies. The vice president, I and Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff for President Obama, talked to these folks and we’d go through a relationship of trust with them. Building that relationship of trust and collaboration is very important. Having strategic reviews about the achievements and the interagency goals is also very important.

What is an example of a situation where decision-making is especially important?

The Office of Management and Budget is very keen on the idea of shared services. One agency provides services to another, things like accounting or procurement services. This is a high-level initiative of the Obama administration. It was carefully transmitted in a variety of presidential memos and guidance documents from OMB. That created a decision framework for how agencies would do things. If there’s going to be a change, if there are going to be new ideas, then those ideas should be carefully placed in a decision framework that is clear to the people who are already in the government as well as the people who are coming in the government so they can help implement the incoming policies of the administration as quickly as possible.

For more information about decision-making in government, read the Partnership for Public Service and IBM Center for the Business of Government report here.


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