AN ANTIDOTE TO INERTIA?

Posted on December 2, 2016 by Annette Kovar

Let’s face it – most seasoned bureaucrats (I confess I am one) often don’t react well to change.  Over time, there just seems to be an intrinsic inertia that builds in all bureaucracies. Federal and state environmental agencies are, unfortunately, no exception. While we in government do strive to avoid this inherent danger (problem?), the comfort of a routine can sometimes be the enemy of innovation. The catchphrases getting a lot of attention, and gaining some real traction, in government circles these days are “process improvement” and “performance measurement”.

Many state environmental agencies and the US EPA have undertaken a variety of self-examination techniques which fall under the general rubric “business process improvement” (BPI), including Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen to name just a few. The articulated objective is to examine key functions and processes with a view towards achieving a host of goals such as reducing costs to the agency, optimizing agency resources, and realizing better value for the agency’s “customers”. BPI may also help transform an organization’s culture to help embrace change and communicate better with the regulated community, the public, and other governmental partners. The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) recently released a report entitled “State Environmental Agency Business Process Improvement Activity 2010-2016,” which accompanied the launch of an online database describing state BPI activities.

Applying process improvement goals in a meaningful way and tracking performance measurement through metrics helps agencies answer the question, “How are we doing?” Performance metrics can track costs and time saved, and identify areas needing improvement. It is not measuring for the sake of measuring, but rather measuring progress toward achieving identified performance goals, such as issuing an air quality permit or awarding grants within a specified period of time.

While the decision to engage in BPI may come as a top-down mandate, the implementation of actual techniques used to arrive at new goals will have to be tailored to each program’s process and appears in practice to be largely collaborative and creative, encouraging a “think outside the box” mindset. There will always be challenges—that’s probably inherent in the nature of government with the prospect of new leadership every four years or so. Process improvement and performance metrics won’t automatically diffuse the inertia in an organization. Change just for the sake of changing isn’t all that appealing without seeing real progress towards a goal.  Working together, however, initiatives borrowed from business may foster an institutional culture and organizational climate in government where personnel are more willing to accept change and perhaps come up with innovative ideas of their own.

(The author is Legal Counsel for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.)