Improving the business of government from the ground up: Interview with R. Scott Bonney, Master Black Belt

Last week, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plane touched down in Athens, protesters were already gathering in the streets. They were outraged by what they see as extreme and unnecessary conditions attached to the multi billion dollar bailout afforded to Greece since its debt crisis began in 2009. Greece, for instance, must pass new cuts of 13bn euros (£10.5bn; $17bn) to qualify for more bailout cash.

While Greece is an extreme example of the fiscal crisis confronting governments worldwide, it’s by no means the only government facing tough decisions about the role of government and the types of services government can and should offer to its citizens. Painful federal budget cuts to help boost state coffers – dubbed "austerity measures" – have become de rigeur in governments across the world. Roughly translated, "austerity measures" usually means job losses and cut backs to government spending and services.

But, while politicians debate the merits of tax cuts, cut backs to benefits (entitlements), and civil service layoffs, should they instead be taking a lot more of a pragmatic look at the "how" of government services and adopt well-trodden process improvement techniques as a way to make the adjustment a lot less painful?

Yes they should, says the guest in this PEX Network interview. R. Scott Bonney, the founder of the Federal Improvement team and a Master Black belt himself for the US federal government. In this interview, Bonney discusses the reasons why the government needs to pay much more attention to process improvement and shares ways that the Federal Improvement Team – a grassroots organization of government employees sharing ideas on how they can improve their agencies – has been tackling the issues from the ground up.

Editor's note: this is an edited transcript of a podcast interview. To listen to the original interview please go here: Government efficiency is not just a Greek problem.

PEX Network: Why do you think government really needs to start looking at process improvement a lot more seriously?

Scott Bonney: That’s a loaded question! The real question is: why does everybody need to be looking at performance improvement? Because the world is changing so fast. I look at the way I did things in high school and college and the way my 15 year old does things, and it is just a completely different world, and that's just in 20 years. Then I look at the way the government does things - and I'm speaking broadly, this isn't just a United States thing, this is governance in general - to govern people effectively requires an awareness of culture and technology and process and integrating people, process, and technology in the right order.

Most federal governments have fallen into a rut. My mom once told me: choose your rut carefully because you may be in it a long time!

Federal governments everywhere are in this annoying position where they don't have any competition. Years ago, probably 20 years ago when I did my masters' thesis on choice in the schools, I discovered that education, in the United States anyway, is the least efficient of all processes because it has no competition. It's government sponsored, and quite frankly, it's unionized, and so, individuals are not incentivized by their personal performance. And in some ways, they're actually told not to over perform because it makes their peers look bad. When you combine those three, you get a really, really inefficient process, and in most cases the federal government is just like that.

PEX Network: Which areas do you see as the greatest opportunities for governments to start applying the power of process improvement?

Scott Bonney: That's again, a loaded question, because it's everywhere.

I'll use a simple example: Everywhere in the government they hire people. Everywhere in the government, at least in the United States, the government hiring processes are horrible. Average hiring time for the Department of Defence between the time they post the job and the time they actually bring a person onboard ranges between six and eight months and that's something that everybody does. Everybody hires. Everybody manages people. 90% of every agency is the same stuff, and yet every single agency is asked to solve those problems on their own. In the case of the United States, there are so many agencies, people have lost track of how many there are anymore!

There are 30 agencies just with members in the Federal improvement team, and I have no idea how many others there are out there. All of them are bad at hiring. Several of them have done some really good projects to reduce the time it takes to find good candidates and bring them on board, and the ability to share that good news with other folks for free rather than spending millions of dollars hiring a contractor to come in and tell you what to do that's easy money.

That's one example of the stuff that you can multiply 10,000 fold. Everybody buys stuff. Everybody manages information. Everybody manages people. Everybody manages money. You know, the core processes are the same everywhere, public and private, and yet every agency is being asked to figure it out on their own.

PEX Network: You mentioned the Federal Improvement Team. That's an organization that you've been working with. Can you tell me about it? What is it?

Scott Bonney: Back in 2008, when I started working for the office of the Secretary of Defence, I realized that you can't fix anything by yourself. So, I started reaching out to friends who I know who were in the performance improvement business and started a little group of folks who would call every other week. We just had a bi-weekly call every other Thursday over lunch and we would just talk about the problems that we were starting, that we were trying to solve, share ideas that we had come across, sometimes commiserate, sometimes say, hey, I got this great thing that you guys might want, you know, something I've discovered. And over the course of time it has grown. Four plus years later, and we have over 300 members. They come from 30 different US government agencies.

In context for our international audience – in the US, we have a lot of agencies that are agencies within agencies within agencies, so when I say agency, I'll be talking about, for instance, the Department of Defence as an agency. Within that, are the Army and the Air Force and the Navy and the Marine Corps and within them are other sub-sub groups. So, at the highest level, 30 different federal agencies have employees have who are members of the Federal Improvement Team. That's an awful lot of reach of what I, sort of jokingly, refer to as the Indian-to-Indian network instead of the chief-to-chief network. And so what we're able to do is to communicate side to side through the walls of the silos instead of up the chain of command and over and down the chain of command.

In my language when I was a naval officer, we always said, you know, solve the problem at the deck plates - down on the ground where the people are doing the work. And that's, in effect, what we're doing, is an opportunity for all these government employees to steal shamelessly from each other because the government already owns the solutions.

PEX Network: And what, are you finding that there's a lot of interest within the government? People are saying, "enough is enough, there's too much waste in our processes; let's actually start to make some changes"?

Scott Bonney: We do, but, unfortunately, most of the folks who really did it are further down in the chain of command. The folks further up have this, and I've got to be careful here because anybody who Googles me will find exactly where I work in the chain of command, so, this, of course, is not true where I work. But, it's true almost everywhere else.

The senior folks are so focused on money that, you know, if you say, we're going to cut your budget by 10%, they just have a tizzy fit; they get all upset. No, everything we're doing is important! Well, that's sort of true. All the products you produce are important, a lot of the stuff that you do en route to producing the product - not so much. Any process that I've ever seen, certainly any process that has not gone through a formal improvement process, is well over 90% non-value added. Now, that's not to say you can get rid of 90% of it. But you can start looking at that 90% non-value add and you can probably eliminate a third of it just by stopping doing stuff that you shouldn't be doing.

But the guys up at the top don't understand that because they're not doing the processes; they're trying to manage the strategy, and so the solutions really have to come from focus on the process, the folks down in the weeds.

PEX Network: We're coming up to a fairly significant election this year in the US. In terms of process what advice would you give to the president?

Scott Bonney: Good luck and why did you really wish this upon yourself? I guess I would remind him or her - in this case, it looks like it's going to be a him - that whether Republican, Democrat, hard right, hard left, hanging around in the middle, is beside the point.

Everywhere along the continuum of human existence, people want the same things. And if we focus on the outcomes that we're trying to produce and, together with all the political spectrums, sit down and say, what are some different products that we can generate to produce these outcomes for people? We want to live a higher quality life. We want to be safer. We want to have good employment that allows us to utilize ourselves from the neck up instead of just from the neck down. People want to be self actualized.

If everybody agrees on what we're trying to accomplish, then coming up with a list of things that can be done to accomplish them, is not that hard. And then out of that big list of stuff that we can do, finding a few of those things that everybody can agree are the right products to produce. All we have to do is lay down the law to simplify the process to produce those products.

Everybody can agree on all of that and democracy was founded on that principle of everybody collaborating and cooperating to reach a consensus around what's best for everybody. And we just need to get away from this bi-polar hard-right, hard-left political posturing and get on about the people's business.

Editor's note: you can find out more about Scott Bonney's Federal Improvement team organization on its web portal here: