Balancing oversight and innovation

February 3, 2009
By H. Mosher

With all the headlines about honest mistakes of late, it bears remembering that often such mistakes lead to valuable insights, writes Christopher Dorobek in his newest Incoming column, Government Needs to Find Balance in Oversight. Noting the government trend toward accountability, Dorobek questions whether accountability itself should be the mission of government. Too much oversight, he cautions, may stifle the very thing agencies need most to best accomplish their missions.

But there is a cost to the hyper-oversight: innovation. As people are second-guessed or figuratively flogged by the public, they tend to become demoralized and avoid doing anything that might garner the spotlight-or wrath. Rather than encouraging innovation and finding new ways of doing things, agencies instead turn to the safe, tried-and-true means of conducting business.

Again, nobody is suggesting that oversight should go away. Good managers acknowledge that oversight can be very helpful in identifying issues. And, there are solutions to its drawbacks.

A simple solution is the acknowledgment that these are difficult issues and that mistakes are not necessarily waste, fraud or abuse. People have to make decisions at certain times based on certain data. Most people simply are trying to do the best job they can. The public must recognize that mistakes can and will happen. Yet another truism is that we tend to learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

In addition to improved oversight, Dorobek cites the need for greater transparency and increased competition--all of which, he says, will help maximize value for agencies and help them improve.

Read his whole column, then come back here and weigh in with your thoughts. Sometimes mistakes prove out to be valuable learning experiences, but that's always hard to see in the moment. What can the new administration and agency managers learn from missteps of the past? When is a mistake not a mistake? And -- most importantly -- how do we walk that fine, fine line between oversight and innovation?

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