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Lean American Rescue Plan ACT (ARPA)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kate McGovern
November 10, 2021

Lean management principles and process improvement techniques can maximize the value of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Moreover, these funds provide an opportunity to build a robust sustainable Lean management system in the public sector.

Originally developed in manufacturing, Lean focuses on eliminating waste and improving process flow to increase customer value. It has been adapted for use in healthcare, finance and government. In the public sector, the potential is great, but the challenges are many.

Unlean Bureaucracy

Complex regulations thwart the efficient implementation of many mission-critical programs. Layers of bureaucratic hurdles are created, trying to assure that programs are used solely for the intended purposes. Lean processes design would ensure programmatic integrity without barring access to qualified individuals. Too often, though, programs are full of choke points and bottlenecks. Consider some recent examples:

  • Rental Assistance intended to help tenants and landlords during the pandemic. 500 jurisdictions each set up their own programs. Just $2.8 billion of the nearly $47 billion appropriated had been distributed while millions of tenants still faced eviction and landlords were not getting paid.
  • Student loan forgiveness program for public service: 98% of applicants were deemed ineligible. Of 180,000 veterans with student loans, only 124 were approved for debt forgiveness.
  • Veterans’ disability and pension claims: 215,000 veterans have been waiting more than four months for a decision.

Lean methodology focuses on delivering quality to the customer of each process. In the example of the rental assistance program, both landlords and tenants are customers, so the process should be designed accordingly. A Lean system would build an efficient quality assurance component without obstructing the purpose.

Processes that determine hiring or immigration status also need to be designed for both customer value and regulatory integrity. Typically, these processes are replete with delays:

  • Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program intended to allow Afghans and Iraqis who served with United States forces to emigrate to the United States. The bureaucratic process kept qualified applicants waiting for years, with more than 10,000 Afghans still in limbo in August, 2021.
  • Hiring child protective workers. Rhode Island appropriated funds to add 91 workers to protect abused children. Four months later, none had made it through the hiring process.

A lean process would allow for expeditious vetting of potential employees and refugees by minimizing hands-offs and delays while maintaining appropriate quality checks.

These examples suggest a multi-track strategy. To start, Lean initiatives can redesign existing programs. Ultimately, the development of Lean management systems will result in better original program design, with the ongoing practice of continuous improvement.

Tactical Use of Lean: The Urgency to Deploy the Funds to the Essential Purposes

It is imperative to empower our state Lean programs to improve basic governmental processes such as hiring and contracting to allow efficient and effective use of incoming funds. The purpose is not just to just to use the funds fast—we must use them well.

Public administrators, Lean practitioners and front-line employees can collaborate to maximize the impact of these funds by applying the principles of quality and efficiency. Lean methodology can be used to streamline process hand-offs, minimize waste and reduce errors, downtime and rework. For example, from 2011-2020, Lean Ohio’s improvement projects eliminated 13,000 steps with a 56% decrease in hand-offs, resulting in a 68% reduction in start-to-finish process time.

Strategic Use of Lean Management: The So-What Factor

The mission-driven purpose of public programs is to serve the common good. As improvement initiatives mature into a culture of continuous improvement, they focus on impact. Vermont’s and Washington’s programs are among those that measure the progress toward their state’s strategic goals.

As these initiatives imbed into the culture, there is an opportunity to examine public policy through a Lean lens, avoiding the implementation of unlean programs.

  • It is leaner not to set up bureaucratic nightmares in the first place, rather than fixing them later.
  • It is leaner to avoid launching multiple redundant programs than to spend time and effort coordinating them later.

Build Comprehensive, Sustainable Capacity for the Future

The current state of the continuous improvement programs is uneven—capacity and focus vary widely across the country. While some state Lean programs have faltered due to turnover of key staff and shifting priorities of elected leadership, dozens of other states have continued their work despite the pandemic. Adaptations such as online training, virtual kaizens and self-service web access to tools and templates have helped sustain many of the improvement programs.

Incoming funds should be used to bolster and deeply imbed these initiatives. The immediate task of leaning the hiring and contracting capacity will build expertise in the methodology. But fixing a few processes will fall short of the full potential of Lean management. To attain the strategic level of maturity, the commitment to these improvement programs can’t be transitory.

The country has a once-in-a-generation opportunity for public investment. Let’s not screw it up with bureaucratic bumbling. First, let’s deal with the immediate mission at hand: efficient deployment of public funds. While doing that, we must set the foundation for sustainable lean management systems.


Author: Kate McGovern, MPA, Ph.D. is a Lean trainer and practitioner in the public sector. Formerly a professor for the State of NH, Kate is a consultant with Daniel Penn Associates and an instructor at College Unbound. She is the author of A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri. [email protected] @KateMcGovern_

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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