The current problems plaguing government performance seem almost insurmountable:

  • Rising costs
  • Reduced revenue
  • Slashed budgets
  • Low morale
  • Low customer satisfaction
  • Long lines
  • Huge backlogs
  • Critical mistakes
  • Failed IT projects
  • Labor management strife

Not to mention the supercharged political environment, the collapse of traditional media and the aging workforce that is about to exit government agencies with all the institutional knowledge crammed in their brown hardshell briefcases. As a resident of Kansas City, the situation seems to me to be about as the Royals baseball team: trying to win a pennant with no money, managers changing every two years, players who have quit trying and a penny-pinching owner who doesn’t even like baseball.

And much like my beloved baseball team, I don’t see the situation getting any better any time soon. This is the new normal for the public sector.

So how do you even begin to solve all these problems? By recognizing that they are all symptoms of one problem: capacity. Simply put, government does not have the capacity to do all it needs to do or all its citizens want it to do. The demands on government far exceed the capacity of government, which in turn leads to budget shortfalls, long lines, low morale and all the other problems from the list above.

Perhaps a simple analogy will help. Think of the work of government as a set of water pipes. For example, a pipe that distributes food stamps or environmental permits, court orders, adoption placements, defense contracts, etc. At one end is the faucet — that’s the demand. The faucet is turned on and the water flows through the pipe, coming out the other end for the recipient to drink. The work of government is the pipes.
What’s happening today is simple to understand: The pipes of government have stayed the same size or become narrower, while the faucet has been cranked wide open.

In human services (food stamps, unemployment, child care, etc.), the demand has increased by over 40 percent while the pipes have decreased by 20 percent. The net result? A flood of water stuck in the pipes, pools of water waiting to get into the pipes and water leaking out of holes in the pipes created by all the pressure.

This is happening everywhere in government — at every agency, every level, every jurisdiction. Government has but one problem: a capacity problem. If government had the capacity to keep up, customers wouldn’t be yelling at us, employees wouldn’t be stressed out, things wouldn’t fall through the cracks, new initiatives could be implemented and bold agendas could be embraced. But we don’t. And we won’t.

Once you realize that capacity is the only problem, you also realize there are really only two possible solutions: reduce the amount of water coming in (demand) or increase the size of the pipes.

Unfortunately, neither of those is going to happen anytime soon. Despite decades of alternating liberal or conservative leadership, the size and scope of government (what we are trying to accomplish, who we are trying to help) continues to grow. What is not growing, however, and probably won’t for another generation, is the size of the pipes. At best, agencies have been able to maintain a stable workforce size. At worst, they are seeing annual reductions in force of 10 to 20 percent. At the time citizens are calling on the government to do more for them, they are faced with far fewer people to help them.

But there is actually a third option, one that reveals itself when you expose the pipes. Ideally, our pipes would be relatively straight and simple. A citizen needs a birth certificate; she fills out an order; it flows through a short, straight pipe; and she gets her certificate in little time. In reality, our pipes don’t look anything like this. Rather than being short and straight, they are long and twisted. The water comes out of the faucet and then enjoys an extreme waterslide full of twists, turns, sudden stops, loop-de-loops, drop-offs and a crash landing. Only, instead of cramming this 30 seconds of harrowing excitement into 30 seconds, we drag it into 30 days, six months or sometimes years. Meanwhile, a whole group of angry, sunburnt kids are lined up on the tower awaiting their chance, shouting obscenities at the park employees and cursing the owners.

The systems of government — the pipes — are a mess. They are kinked up by 20 years of CYA, specialization, reorganizations, cost-cutting and abandoned technology projects. They got outsourced, in-sourced, downsized, right-sized and zero-based-budgeted. And now they are so twisted and slow they make a silly straw look efficient.

If capacity is the problem and the pipes are the culprit, then what is the solution? How do we get more water to move through the pipes? Straighten the pipes.

Bending a pipe slows down the flow. Slower flow means less gets through. How can we do more in government? Straighten the pipes. Speed the flow. The faster the water moves through the pipes, the more that we can get done at less cost.

Everything happens in the pipes. Pipes are where the customers show up. Pipes are where the employees work. Pipes are where all the money is spent and where the results happen. In the coming weeks we will dive deeper into all of these and share the secret to creating the government we want.

*Originally published as Doing More With Less? It’s a Pipe Dream., (Public Great @, September 1, 2010)

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