21st Century Challenges:

Transforming Government to Meet Current and Emerging Challenges

GAO-05-830T: Published: Jul 13, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2005.

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Bernice Steinhardt
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The daunting challenges that face the nation in the 21st century establish the need for the transformation of government and demand fundamental changes in how federal agencies should meet these challenges by becoming flatter, more results-oriented, externally focused, partnership-oriented, and employee-enabling organizations. This testimony addresses how the long-term fiscal imbalance facing the United States, along with other significant trends and challenges, establish the case for change and the need to reexamine the base of the federal government; how federal agencies can transform into high-performing organizations; and how multiple approaches and selected initiatives can support the reexamination and transformation of the government and federal agencies to meet these 21st century challenges.

Long-term fiscal challenges and other significant trends and challenges facing the United States provide the impetus for reexamining the base of the federal government. Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path driven by known demographic trends and rising health care costs, compounded by near-term deficits arising from new spending and reduced revenues as a percentage of the economy. Unless we take effective and timely action, we will face large and growing structural deficit shortfalls, eroding our ability to address the current and emerging needs competing for a share of a shrinking budget pie. At the same time, policymakers will need to confront a host of emerging forces and trends, such as changing security threats, increasing global interconnectedness, and a changing economy. To effectively address these challenges and trends, government cannot accept all of its existing programs, policies, functions, and activities as "givens." Reexamining the base of all major existing federal spending and tax programs, policies, functions, and activities offers compelling opportunities to redress our current and projected fiscal imbalances while better positioning government to meet the new challenges and opportunities of this new century. In response, agencies need to change their cultures and create the capacity to become high-performing organizations, by implementing a more results-oriented and performance-based approach to how they do business. To successfully transform, agencies must fundamentally reexamine their business processes, outmoded organizational structures, management approaches, and, in some cases, missions. GAO has hosted several forums to explore the change management practices that federal agencies can adopt to create high-performing organizations. For example, participants at a GAO forum broadly agreed on the key characteristics and capabilities of high-performing organizations, which can be grouped into four themes: a clear, well-articulated, and compelling mission; focus on needs of clients and customers; strategic management of people; and strategic use of partnerships. A successful reexamination of the base of the federal government will entail multiple approaches over a period of years. The reauthorization, appropriations, oversight, and budget processes should be used to review existing programs and policies. However, no single approach or institutional reform can address the myriad of questions and program areas that need to be revisited. GAO has recommended certain other initiatives to assist in the needed transformations. These include (1) development of a governmentwide strategic plan and key national indicators to assess the government's performance, position, and progress; (2) implementing a framework for federal human capital reform; and (3) proposing specific transformational leadership models, such as creating a Chief Operating Officer/Chief Management Official with a term appointment at select agencies.

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