The empirical guide to greater government efficiency

Thomas Lee
Tom Lee

However they lean politically, most American taxpayers share at least one civic opinion: that government ought to operate more efficiently.

Now the brightest minds in organizational science are helping to make it so.

Fourteen leading management scholars—including Tom Lee of the University of Washington Foster School of Business—have contributed their particular areas of expertise to produce a practical guideline of best practices in organizational management, customized for agencies of the U.S. federal government.

This plan consists of evidence-based strategies to enhance employee engagement, empowerment, embeddedness, voice and collaboration in and across large bureaucratic organizations.

“The intent is to improve productivity, innovation and satisfaction among federal employees,” says Lee, the Hughes M. Blake Endowed Professor of Management at Foster. “Ultimately, this should result in more effective and efficient use of the trillions of tax dollars collected each year.”

Research relevance

Lee says the project grew out of an “eternal frustration among management faculty” that the ideas in the papers they write can take so long to filter into practical usage inside organizations.

Herman Aguinis of the George Washington University School of Business initiated the project when he gained access to data from the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. An analysis of responses from 420,000 employees representing more than 80 departments and agencies of the federal government revealed several clear deficiencies—employee dissatisfaction or uncertainty caused by managerial shortcomings—that have proven to breed ineffective and inefficient work.

To address these deficiencies point-by-point, Aguinis convened an “A-Team” of fellow experts in organizational science.

Lee says that Aguinis was a master at “herding cats” and inspiring brevity from scholars whose mastery of their disciplines has accumulated over many decades and reams of studies.

The challenge, he adds, was: “Can we take what we know about organizational behavior and create greater efficiencies by applying it to government? No one person could have written this manuscript.”

Straightforward strategies

The paper equips government personnel managers with “shovel-ready” strategies to improve outcomes immediately through:

  • Enhancing engagement, empowerment and embeddedness – by redesigning jobs, instituting a formal system for employee suggestions, using digital performance dashboards.
  • Cultivating employees’ voice – by training leaders to encourage dialogue, reducing barriers to the flow of information, learning to understand and encourage employee participation, and improving union-management partnerships.
  • Fostering collaboration, cooperation and communication within and across departments – by setting clear and achievable goals, enabling interdependent cross-unit teams, incentivizing collaboration through management systems and performance measurements, and improving the understanding of collaboration through union-management partnerships.

“Our intervention and policy recommendations have the synergistic goals of improving employee well-being and productivity, agency performance and innovation—all resulting in increased efficiency and effectiveness,” says Lee, who contributed definitive strategies to encourage “engagement, empowerment and embeddedness” based on his seminal work discerning the reasons why employees choose to stay or go. “Ultimately, this benefits the tax payer.”

What they hope to accomplish

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government employees a civilian workforce of 2.7 million, making it the nation’s largest employer.

So inefficiency at the federal level is inefficiency at its grandest scale. And government efficiency—a notion often laughed off as an oxymoron—would be welcomed warmly in these days of unprecedented budget scrutiny. Lee and his co-authors believe that applying their evidence-based ideas to modernize the management of large government organizations would produce a resounding win-win.

If the right people would just pay attention.

“The hope,” he says, “is that people in government will see this paper and say, ‘here is an implementable set of ideas that evidence shows should result in measurable dollar savings and greater efficiencies across government agencies.’”

“Nobody associated with this project has illusions that we are going to change the world,” Lee adds. “But we could nudge it in the right direction.”

Using organizational science research to address U.S. Federal Agencies’ Management & Labor Needs” is published in the April/May issue of Behavioral Science & Policy. Authors include: Herman Aguinis, Gerald F. Davis, James R. Detert, Mary Ann Glynn, Susan E. Jackson, Tom Kochan, Ellen Ernst Kossek, Carrie Leana, Thomas W. Lee, Elizabeth Morrison, Jone Pearce, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Denise Rousseau and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe.