Managers: Ignore Washington at Your Peril

This was originally published as an exclusive commentary for BusinessWeek.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, one thing is clear: The private sector's traditional way of doing business with our federal government must change. No change holds more potential to benefit both sides of this relationship than greater private-sector engagement on basic government operational issues.

Historically, the private sector has taken an adversarial stance toward government. But the old argument that government should just get out of the way and let the markets work has been rendered obsolete by current events. In the new reality, business clearly needs government's help. Now, we need to make sure that government has not only the right policies, but also the right personnel and processes to execute and implement these vital initiatives.

As President Obama said in his Inaugural address, "The question we ask today is not whether government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

The answer, too often, is that it doesn't.

We are constantly bombarded with stories of government breakdowns, from the failure to keep contaminated peanuts off the market to the Security & Exchange Commission's bungling of the Bernie Madoff case to Hurricane Katrina.

These missteps explain why people are so skeptical about government and undermine Washington's ability to confront our common challenges. But they do not reveal any inherent flaw in government. They are instead symptoms of a steady erosion of the basic capacity of our federal government.

If you've worked in the private sector and were to peek behind government's curtain, it wouldn't take long to see the source of Uncle Sam's operational problems. Think about the way private businesses are run. Senior executives spend the vast majority of their time working to solve operational challenges. In government, it's the exact opposite. Federal leaders spend virtually all of their time setting policy, ignoring matters of organizational health.

Why do federal executives make such an obvious management mistake?

Perhaps the biggest reason is that our government is run by short-term political leadership that has little incentive to focus on long-term issues. A typical Presidential appointee stays in government for roughly two years and is rewarded for crisis management and scoring policy wins. These individuals are highly unlikely to spend significant energy on management issues, when the benefits of such an investment won't be seen until after they are long gone.

Another key reason is that there is no constituency for these issues. If powerful interests are constantly harassing you about this, that, and the other thing, and nobody but the occasional pesky good government group is telling you to pay attention to personnel and process issues, you're going to ignore personnel and process issues. It's that simple.

The business community has a natural role to play in correcting this problem. For starters, it's in its self-interest. If an absentee government proved disastrous for segments of the private sector, it stands to reason that an active government that serves as a check against the worst excesses of the market might be a good thing. Plus, a high-functioning government offers our country a key competitive advantage in a globalized world, facilitating international trade and making our financial markets more attractive to foreign investors seeking security and transparency.

Second, nobody knows how to get things done in Washington like the business community. Private industry should put the muscle of its $3 billion lobbying operations behind efforts to improve government operations and management.

It could start with something counterintuitive, like pushing for staff increases in government. A natural fit would be the acquisition field, where we've seen an explosion in spending on private contracting but no growth in the number of federal employees available to manage these contracts. Some might think this ratio would work to the private sector's advantage, but the reality is that these staff shortages result in poorly executed contracts that often end in arbitration, costing everyone.

Another way for business to get involved is by lending its expertise around talent issues. The Partnership for Public Service (which is run by this article's author) offers many opportunities for business leaders to share lessons learned with government officials, such as its Private Sector Council and Senior Advisors to Government Executives program. These consulting arrangements not only offer federal managers valuable insight, but they can be excellent professional development opportunities, providing private-sector employees a chance to work on operational challenges on a massive scale.

Business veterans should also consider going one step further and working in government. Our federal government is hiring in pretty much every professional field, which is something you can't say about many employers these days. It may not be something you would ordinarily do, but these are no ordinary times, and our country will need the contributions of our best and brightest to get us out of this mess.

At a time when our government is trying to do everything it can to revitalize business, business has a responsibility to revitalize government. There aren't many easy choices out there right now, but the business community's engagement on this issue is a no-brainer.