Achieving Operational Excellence in Government Executive Summary

May 17, 2017

This resource is part of the Ash Center's Operational Excellence in Government Project.


In 2016, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School received funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to launch the Operational Excellence in Government Project to identify and celebrate operational efficiency successes across state and local government, and to foster a community of practice around operational excellence. The project’s goal is to reduce the cost of identifying opportunities for efficiency and cost savings across all layers of government, and to accelerate the transfer and deployment of these successful cases.

No one argues against operational excellence and yet it is seldom the subject of headlines—there is typically a lot more attention paid to the “what” of government than the “how.” This project focuses needed attention on the operations of government and how to achieve better results for the dollars we spend. The opportunity is significant—a study by the consulting firm Accenture estimates that $995 billion in value could be created by 2025 if government in the US achieved a 1 percent annual efficiency gain in operations. We hope that the highlighted insights and recommendations empower governments to build capacity, improve operations, and carry out successful efficiency initiatives, which will also generate significant value for taxpayers across the nation.

This executive summary accompanies a more in-depth narrative framework paper, several case studies of success, and three comprehensive implementation success cases.  All of these are publicly available on an interactive website that also includes a searchable database of 30 government efficiency reports and resources. For each report, recommendations are tagged so that they are searchable on a variety of relevant terms. The reports compiled here were created by government employees as well as their external partners in academia and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Project Significance

This project brings together for the first time, in an easily searchable database, a wealth of information on government efficiency. The information compiled here was previously available but only with significant effort. Our work to find, categorize, and curate the information paves the way for its use by others. By compiling existing studies, we are giving those who care about government—chief executives, senior leaders, midlevel managers, program administrators, and frontline workers—the tools to make measurable improvement in their work. Our work provides a cost-free way to access studies already completed for government by top-level consulting firms as well as by thought leaders in public administration.

This 30 existing studies of government efficiency catalog a staggering number of recommendations, 2,021 in total, to improve the operations of government. Of the studies, 23 include specific dollar-savings amounts that could be achieved as a result of implementing the recommendations. Annual dollar savings identified in the reports range from $18 million in Albany County, New York, to $7.3 billion in California. The total amount of savings identified in these 23 studies is nearly $17 billion in yearly value to the taxpayers of those cities and states. We estimate that if recommendations such as these were implemented across state and local government, a total of $30 billion in value could be returned to taxpayers each year.

Study Observations

Reports varied in the number of recommendations from a high of 346 to a low of 10. There were six reports (20 percent of the total) that each contained more than 100 recommendations. There were also six reports (20 percent of total) that had 20 or fewer recommendations each. Recommendations included in the reports ranged from the very general to the very specific, with a clustering in a noticeably small number of areas of interest. The research team categorized the 2,021 recommendations, grouping the recurring similar recommendations together. Over 80 percent of all recommendations address one of the following three broad categories of government administration:

  • Operations and management of departments
  • Revenue collection and financial management
  • Workforce development and human capital management

Our research team also identified 43 specific subcategories of recommendations, ranging from streamlining processes to improved fleet management. Over half of all recommendations addressed one of the following seven specific subcategories of activity:

  • Process change: process improvement within an existing function of government or elimination of a function of government
  • Organizational change: changing an organizational structure or consolidation of operations across departments
  • Performance management: using data to measure and improve performance, such as with “stat” programs
  • Shared services: the sharing of administrative functions (such as HR, payroll, procurement, IT, etc.) across multiple departments of government
  • Revenue enhancement: initiatives to increase the efficiency of collection of taxes, fees, and fines by government, and policies to optimize rates and policies for what is collected
  • Human capital and employee benefits: efforts to manage employee compensation and overtime; efforts to right-size and optimize employee benefits such as employee compensation, vacation, and holiday schedules; employee contributions to health and retirement, etc.
  • Procurement: streamlining procurement processes, improving delegation of authority for small purchases, using procurement cards for greater accountability, implementing electronic procurement to cut cost and increase transparency, etc. 

Promising Approaches

The project team analyzed promising approaches that span the government enterprise as overarching management philosophies and strategies, and has developed a list of the most promising approaches that are relevant to specific functions or departments within government. Each approach is described in detail on the project website, along with characteristics and benefits of the approach for transforming government.  

In addition, the project team developed a matrix to demonstrate the ease of implementation level of these promising approaches based on the number of parties involved in the effort and the degree to which the initiative changes current process. Further detail on each approach is included on the project website.


Faith in government continues to decline—a Pew survey found only one in five Americans thinks government programs are well-run. Operational excellence efforts, whether addressing shared services for payroll processing or information technology, or streamlining processes for the administrative functions of government, can make a big difference both in efficiency and by changing how government is perceived by its customers. When a public sector organization runs with operational excellence, not only are customers happier with the results but employees will enjoy a sense of accomplishment that they have delivered value for the public dollar. This cannot help but improve morale. Now more than ever, our country needs operational excellence in the public sector.


Browse more Operational Excellence resources on: