Improving Program Design

Recommendations and Actions

What Can be Done to Develop and Promulgate Program Design?

Program design criteria are merely the foundation for more efficient and effective federal programs. To establish a credible discipline of program design, the criteria and the technology used in successful design should be developed more fully throughout the federal government. The following are recommendations for developing a formal discipline of program design.

DES02: Establish Pilot Program Design Capabilities in One or Two Agencies

After development of the handbook, the PMC should designate one or two agencies to pilot test program design capability to determine the value and costs of this function for a reasonable probationary period such as two years. For example, these pilots could establish a modest program design office in each agency staffed by personnel qualified in program design, management, and evaluation. The purpose of these offices would be to help senior officials design new programs, assess alternate program designs, and review existing programs for design integrity. Other mechanisms and structures for creating program design capability would be permissible. Where those pilots prove successful, program design capabilities would be expanded to other agencies on an incremental basis. However, if they fail to meet predetermined performance criteria, the pilots would be restructured or terminated.

The long-term ideal for institutionalizing sound program design is the integration of good design practices in the program formulation and management processes organic to each agency and department. The most significant advantage to establishing program design functions at the agency level is that it brings program design capabilities closer to the customers and program managers. If reinventing government is to be successful, there must be a comprehensive cultural change in the agencies. The placement of the program design function at the agency level should help to facilitate cultural change where many program designs originate and where programs are implemented.

A principal disadvantage of this approach is that the design staffs may be unduly constrained and influenced by their immediate environments. They may find it difficult to elevate their perspectives to a higher plane that would foster fresh, creative approaches to the design of agency programs. Also, innovative inter-agency opportunities may be harder to conceive and implement if the program design function is totally embedded within a single agency. However, the pilot demonstrations should indicate if this is an insurmountable handicap or if feasible remedies are available.

All agencies should be encouraged to test program design principles in their reinvention laboratories. Principles could be applied to either an existing program or to the design of a new program. The reinvention laboratory would provide a protected setting in which to examine the possibility of improved outcomes based on improved design features. Some agencies (e.g., Interior) have emulated the National Performance Review structure and have program design teams. The agency team can provide advice and assistance to the laboratory regarding the proper use of design principles and the evaluation of success or failure.

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