Nancy Killefer

Nancy Killefer, senior partner and global leader of the public sector practice, McKinsey & Company:

Many news and political organizations have commented about the contradictory nature of public opinion about the federal deficit: The public wants to reduce public spending, but does not want less of what the government provides. Much of the public, for example, wants the government to do as much as it’s currently doing — or more — to protect the environment, reduce poverty, prevent terrorism and maintain a robust defense.

One crucial part of the solution to this conundrum is for government to become more productive. In our work with federal agencies on their top managerial challenges, as well as with government institutions around the world, we have found that they can improve their productivity and performance by making disciplined operational changes. We estimate that improving productivity could save the U.S. government up to $134 billion over the next 10 years — while maintaining or improving output, customer service and workforce satisfaction.

Achieving a higher level of productivity requires a clear mandate and support from the top and good performance metrics. It also, importantly, requires the involvement and engagement of federal employees. Talented, capable and committed to their organizations’ missions, federal employees often have great insight into how to improve productivity and performance.

As only one example, we recently worked with a team of employees to help a large federal department improve its productivity in one of its major activities — processing certain financial applications. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the volume of applications had tripled even as the production staff had declined, leading to dramatic increases in response times for customers. We worked with regional managers and frontline personnel to identify how the department could apply “lean management” principles and tools to improve both productivity and the work environment. The team improved communication between managers and their staffs, worked with headquarters to eliminate unnecessary steps in their process, and identified skill-building opportunities at all levels. In the sites where the department has implemented recommendations, productivity is increasing dramatically.

Some first steps to improve productivity and performance:

* Provide more coaching and training to frontline managers and employees, so they develop the skills and capabilities to do their jobs more productively.

* Develop a culture that encourages innovation and constructive dissent by employees.

* Create more two-way dialogue between the agency’s center and its frontline, since inefficient rules and processes are often generated because of mistrust between the two.

* Involve frontline managers and employees in productivity initiatives.

Examples like the one above illustrate that the government can achieve better outcomes without spending more money — a result that politicians of all stripes and even an ambivalent public can support.