Like so many of you, I grew up on Governing magazine. Entering the public sector in my mid-20s and new to both management and the civil service, Governing’s columns, conferences and the role-model leaders it spotlighted became my teachers. And also like many of you, my heart sank when word came last year that the publication was closing down. Governing was more than a magazine; it was an extended conversation about who we are as public servants. What makes us unique? Why would anybody want to take on government’s unique and often thankless challenges? What’s working and who is making it happen? Governing told our story, and in doing so helped each of us find a higher calling and understand why we serve.
For those reasons I was ecstatic to learn that, like Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow, Governing isn’t really dead. Its shape has shifted, and it’s still pushing us to ponder the big questions: What is the future of government and what role will we play in making that happen?
It is impossible to talk about the future of government without talking about the future of its management and leadership. The public sector has a unique culture, aspects of which — first and foremost, a pervasive ethos of service — are rightly treasured and must be preserved. But we also have pillars of dysfunction that have been with us for generations and aren’t likely to disappear just because of changes in technology or workforce demographics. I was beyond honored when Governing let me join this conversation by publishing two of my books, We Don’t Make Widgets and Extreme Government Makeover. Both books demonstrated that by changing how we think about our work and what we believe about people, we can transform our agencies into efficient, effective forces for good. That is the central question this continued dialog will seek to address.
Through regulation, direct service, grants and its other activities, government touches nearly every part of our lives. I will leave it to the politicians to debate whether this is good or bad. But there is no doubt that the impact of government is significant. And so is the import: The work of government is noble. In our various roles we are working to preserve the environment, to grow the economy, to protect the vulnerable, to improve quality of life. Whether you are an elected official, an agency executive or a front-line public employee, your work matters. The people you serve have given so much for so many generations to make your role possible in the hopes that you will deliver those awesome returns.
With outcomes so vital, customers so precious and resources so scarce, we should be the best-managed industry in the world. Why aren’t we? Why is more thought given to which toy will make your child want Count Chocula for breakfast or what discount will make you more likely to buy insurance from a cartoon? Why does Silicon Valley spend so much time innovating something as meaningless as a Bitmoji or where to put (or not put) the headphone jack? The private sector manages the heck out of often trivial pursuits. Yet for our often life-and-death work, what do we manage? A fraction of what we should.
Management matters. Government is not just politics and policy. There is also process. It’s not just about the why and the who. It’s also about the how. The most noble intentions and earnest policies cannot have an impact if we can’t make and deliver what government produces to the people who need it. When we are backlogged and bottlenecked, when we are impossible to navigate or reach, when we continue to produce systems that are poorly designed or ineffective, we make it impossible to achieve the missions in which we are so heavily invested.
While arguments about what government should do and who it should do it for are critical, equally important is how we make the work, work. For most of us, that is our role. We hire the people, deal with the customers and strive to ensure quality, all while being trained on none of it. It is amazing that we accomplish anything at all.
Our investment in building the leadership and management skills of our public servants severely lags behind that of our private-sector counterparts. The future of government needs to be about fixing this. Management is about more than technology and budgets. It’s the art and science of delivering value by removing the obstacles that trap public servants in dysfunctional systems.
The future of this column will be to dive into the issues that address that need: systems thinking, using data for good and increasing capacity, while developing greater understanding of what truly motivates people, how change happens, why technology won’t save us, and so on. Together, we will explore the culture of government performance and how it can better reflect our values. We will challenge beliefs and assumptions and highlight the pioneering people and practices that offer a glimpse of the future. Most importantly, I hope to continue the dialog that has been so meaningful to me for the past 20 years. I am grateful to Governing and it’s dedicated followers that I’ll get to do so.
*Originally published as Management, Leadership and the Transformation Government Needs (Governing, March 12, 2020)