Implementing Change that Lasts

By Patricia Cogswell

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The Biden administration, like each one before it, faces high expectations, unexpected crises, and a plethora of recommendations for policy direction.  

National security professionals know that creating enduring impact requires more than issuing policy memorandums. Successful leaders utilize the “machinery of government” to work on their behalf, rather than trying to go around it. They value informed deliberation of courses of action,  identifying and collaborating with career officials who can effectively translate a policy goal or outcome into operational reality. They also engage key partners and stakeholders, effectively align interests and activity, and create important feedback mechanisms. 

At Guidehouse, we have seen government leaders use certain methods to produce the culture change needed to achieve these important outcomes. Effective use of the following three methods stood out as critical to implementing lasting change:

  • Utilizing meaningful decision-making structures
  • Incentivizing innovation
  • Measuring progress towards outcomes

By using meaningful decision-making structures, leaders are better able to implement thoughtfully developed solutions, minimizing re-work and negative second order effects that can distract and detract from progress. Meaningful decision-making structures better ensure that policies are operationally feasible, implementable on a predictable timeline, are appropriately funded, and roles and responsibilities are clearly delineated. They also prioritize engagement of essential stakeholders prior to tasking them with implementing the new policy. In some instances, leaders had to establish decision-making structures where they might not currently exist or revitalize ones that had become ineffective. In order for new leadership to effectively respond to events of the day, as well as execute their agenda, they must prioritize meaningful decision-making structures to effectively scale execution of policy goals to advance the mission of the department or agency. 

Many of the challenges facing new leadership in national security agencies are not new and they are not simple. They often remain unresolved because they are complex, time-consuming, require buy-in from diverse and numerous stakeholders, or involve additional or reprioritized resourcing. New leadership can drive change in the national security space if they avoid repeating what has not worked before, while leveraging existing proven agency implementation approaches, supplemented by broader best practices. Successful leaders effectively incentivize innovation in their workforce and with the communities they seek to protect, creating an environment that encourages, channels, and uses their constructive input. 

Achieving true institutional and cultural change often takes longer than leaders think it will. Measuring progress toward outcomes, and reporting on that progress, provides an important mechanism to gain momentum by recognizing incremental progress as well as to provide data on whether the activity is leading to the desired outcomes, or if leaders should consider a change in direction.

Last fall, Guidehouse and American University School of Public Affairs hosted a special Mission is Possible Podcast Series – Presidential Transitions in the National Security Sector. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to explore themes from those podcasts, the success areas outlined above, as well as other recommendations from those who have served in government leadership roles and those who have supported government agencies through their decision-making approaches, innovation programs, and performance measures, to provide insight into how they can be applied in practice.   

As we continue this conversation, we have also invited a number of former officials to be part of the dialog by answering the question, “The new administration has established a robust policy agenda. As an experienced federal leader, what are your recommendations for what they can do to successfully implement their direction?” We are excited about the depth and breadth of the response. We will publish responses on this page as we report on the practical steps that the Biden administration can take to bring lasting, influential change.

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