Culture Change


Culture Change: Reinventing the Federal Government

I wanted to make this an exciting place to work. And what's exciting is to be able to accomplish something. . . . I really believe that when I leave, this will be a better organization.

Dan Beard
Bureau of Reclamation

At first blush, Dan Beard does not fit the mold of a revolutionary. The 51-year-old Beard worked in Washington, D.C., as a researcher with the Congressional Research Service, a House staff director, a top aide to House and Senate members, a member of the White House domestic policy staff, and a senior official in the Interior Department before President Clinton picked him to be commissioner of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation.

Nor did the circumstances he faced lend themselves to revolutionary activity--at least of the kind Beard envisioned. As scholars and NPR itself have written, Washington has become a city far more accustomed to adding more of the same--programs, activities, agencies, bureaucracies--than subtracting. Faced with a problem, the federal government's answer has been merely to add a layer of new onto the old. Even such anti-government leaders as President Reagan could not reverse the trend.[1]

But Beard understood the bureau's problems from his days on Capitol Hill. It was, he thought, a "diamond in the rough,"[2] a misguided but potentially wonderful agency. While the bureau still focused on building dams, public support for large public works projects had waned. What the bureau had to become, he thought, was "the preeminent water resource management agency in the world."[3] And when President Clinton stated his desire to change government, Beard assumed he meant it. Determined to fulfill Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's goal of reinventing the bureau, Beard began to dramatically streamline and refashion his organization.[4]

From his arrival in May 1993, Beard set a new tone, beginning with the blunt message he articulated. "We're going to have fewer people, fewer dollars, and more work," he told his employees. "And our challenge is to find a way to deal with that creatively."

When Beard arrived, the bureau had two headquarters--one in Washington with about 85 people, another in Denver with about 2,000. While Washington handled the bureau's budget, contracts, and other administrative matters, Denver ruled on requests--e.g., to build a dam--from any of the bureau's 35 field offices. Beard turned the process upside down. He shifted authority to the field offices and transformed the Denver office from a headquarters to a customer service-based organization for the field; rather than rule on requests, it would provide advice. Beard told field offices that if they wanted help from Denver, they'd have to buy it. But to ensure that Denver kept its prices competitive, he authorized field offices to get their help elsewhere. Overall, Beard cut the number of headquarters offices from 217 to just 51 and reduced the number of headquarters employees from more than 2,000 to fewer than 100.

Beard's agency wide changes have been equally eye-opening. He reduced the overall staff from 7,500 to 6,500; cut management layers from five to three; lowered the supervisor-employee ratio from 1:5 to 1:15; abolished the seven highest positions under him (replacing them with three new ones); cut the number of senior executive service (SES) positions from 23 to 16; and transformed 25 of the 35 field offices into "area" offices, with increased authority and responsibility.

But a streamlined operation is just one element of Beard's revolution. What the commissioner has launched is, in essence, a culture change, one that transcends jurisdictional boundaries and encourages employees to think creatively about how to do their jobs better. At his initiative, teams of workers developed all of the bureau's new organizational structures, work processes, and implementation plans.

To increase staff input, Beard distributes what he calls "How Am I Doing?" cards. On one side is a series of questions about intra-bureau communication, cooperation, empowerment, and recognition and rewards. The other side, under the heading "Make A Difference--Talk Back to Dan," asks staffers for their ideas and for suggestions about what they would like to see more or less of. He has received more than 700 responses, each of which he answers. Beard also has launched a bureau-wide effort to eliminate burdensome regulations, asking all employees for their thoughts and creating a special electronic mailbox to receive them.

To encourage his senior managers to take risks, Beard gave them "forgiveness coupons" that they can cash in upon making a mistake. ("It is easier to get forgiveness . . . than permission," they read.) He also created an "Enterprise Fund" to allow managers to keep some of the savings they generate through their entrepreneurship to invest in special programs and environmental expansion projects. The savings also will cut costs for customers.

Those customers are already seeing other results: suburban water users in Santa Barbara are getting quicker decisions about water supplies. And the bureau is conducting its safety inspections more quickly.


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