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Reengineering U.S. Government, Lou Gerstner, and John Madden

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author William Seebeck. I've known Bill for decades, going back to our time working together at Lexis-Nexis in Dayton, Ohio during the 1980's. Bill has a wealth of experience in online systems, banking, publishing, and public relations.]

By Bill Seebeck

Shortly after the Super Bowl, I was speaking with a life-long friend, Mike Siani, NFL scout, coach and former Oakland Raiders wide receiver. I said, “You know Mike, I always loved when John Madden was your coach and on first downs he would use three wide receivers (Fred Biletnikoff, Siani, and Cliff Branch) and send you all down field for a big gain pass play from QB Ken Stabler.“ (In Mike’s 9-year playing career alone, he averaged some 17 yards after each catch). “Today, most teams are so predictable. They run on the first two downs and then they try the pass on the third down.”

I can still hear it in Madden’s voice today when he says, I’d pass on first down, you’ve got be more aggressive right out of the box. Go for it!

Another person who liked “going for it” in business was Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM. There are at least two things Lou is known for. The first is being bold and the second being successful.

If you are holding an American Express card, chances are it’s because of the way Lou Gerstner changed their card business between 1978 and 1989. If you enjoyed a Nabisco cracker during the Super Bowl, chances are you can thank Lou Gerstner and the fact the IBM is still one of the most successful American companies is definitely because of Mr. G.

His efforts at IBM are well known to me, in part because my business partner, Hunter Grant and I were hired as an outside consultant to review and second-guess their Internet strategy in the mid-1990’s. During that time, we looked at quite a number of projects and found them wanting, not because they didn’t have great people, but because they weren’t current with the rapid changes occurring in the information technology marketplace at the time. In addition, the organization had become so large, that it was getting in its own way in creating new products. Gerstner changed that, but only after instilling in the company a belief that change and a willingness to accept ongoing examination and criticism were good things that could help drive new growth.

It was no surprise to me then when I received my September 18, 2008 edition of BusinessWeek and found that Lou Gerstner had written a great column entitled. “It’s Time To Reengineer U.S. Government”. In this now five-month old article, Gerstner said:

Amid the ongoing turmoil, it seems obvious we must reinvent our government and create an efficient system that can anticipate and avoid major crises. Despite many opportunities, however, this is not a lesson we have taken to heart. Whether the task is fixing health care, upgrading K-12 education, bolstering national security, or a host of other missions, the U.S. is better at patching problems than fixing them. Part of the reason is that we have two parties lacking comity and a sense of shared national responsibility. But beyond the partisan divide, I would argue that the processes of government are broken, preventing us from taking responsible actions.”

In the article, he invited readers to visit USA.gov and there he said:

“You'll find thousands of directorates, agencies, boards, offices, and services replete with overlapping responsibilities, ancient priorities, and divided accountability.”

He continued:

“We do not need Departments of Commerce, Labor, and Education; we need a single Department of Skills that will promote an integrated approach to global competitiveness. Our military should be trained and structured around missions, not the elements of air, water, and land. That requires fundamental change, but instead, the Defense Dept. has established an overlay of "commands" to compensate for organizational deficiencies. Does it make sense, in 2008, even to have a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives? If so, why is it part of the Treasury Dept.?”

when it gets to the financial sector, Mr. Gerstner stated:

“... the regulatory processes in place are ad hoc and depend on leaders undertaking risky initiatives. Now more than ever, we need a single federal organization to oversee all of our financial institutions.”

In addition to calling for bipartisan action and business cooperation, he suggests the creation of a commission similar to the one established by President Reagan in 1982 that became known as the Grace Commission (named after its chairman and my former boss, the late J. Peter Grace, Jr.) It was this commission that uncovered great government waste. In its final report, the Commission concluded that nearly one-third of all taxes collected by the federal government were squandered through inefficiency. Although, as Mr. Gerstner stated in his article, 2,478 recommendations were made, few were ever tried.

I agree with Lou Gerstner. A government reengineering team should be created, reporting directly to the President. It should be vigorous in its effort to create change not for change sake but because we know that government no longer works. It is a broken system. We are much better off defining new requirements and creating a new government structure, that we can migrate to, one that is lean, flexible and powerful enough to efficiently meet the needs of tomorrow’s citizens.

Come on, don’t be afraid, you’ve got to be more aggressive out of the box. Go for it!

© 2009 WBSeebeck

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