Book Review: The Extreme Government Makeover

Book Review: The Extreme Government Makeover

As a public administration professional, I’m always looking for new ways to improve government performance and make government work more like a business.  That’s particular important in Governor Ricketts’ administration, where we have a mission to make government more efficient, effective, and customer focused.  So I’m always on the lookout for new insights and best practices that we can apply in Nebraska State government.  I recently completed Ken Miller’s book, Extreme Government Makeover, and found that it offered a number of interesting insights.

Mr. Miller’s basic thesis is that government performance is undermined by a capacity and demand problem born of CYA that is built into our processes.  Basically government’s natural response to defects is to attempt to design all potential for human error out of the system (CYA).  This leads to over specialization, too many handoffs, and overall kludgy processes.  He characterizes accountability initiatives, and other techniques that focus on individual worker performance as “stale,” and instead encourages government executives to focus on “straightening the pipes” of process flow.  To accomplish this, Miller recommends that process improvement focus on process simplicity, rather than task simplicity.

Miller also does well to differentiate “mission pipes” from support functions.  He observes that in government compliance, HR, and IT functions often are viewed as equal voices in resources, prioritization, and policy development as those teams that are directly serving customers.  Miller emphasizes the importance of getting focused on who the customer is and ensuring that the support teams are focused on supporting the mission of serving those customers, not adding additional complexity themselves.

A limitation of Extreme Government Makeover is that it presumes a certain level of sophistication in government operations.  It might be said that the book presumes a post Reinventing Government level of operational sophistication.  In state government here in Nebraska for example, we don’t yet consistently do performance evaluations, and are in our infancy with process improvement and pay for performance, so to characterize those efforts as “stale” in our case would be a mistake.  Public administration professionals should assess where their organization is in terms of operational maturity, and not skip past those table stakes business practices.

Overall I definitely recommend Extreme Government Makeover to anyone in a managerial or policy making role in government.  The reader will be left equipped with new tools and perspectives to approach problem solving, and minimally will be mindful of identifying and preventing the proliferation of CYA driven process complexity.