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As they say in 12 step programs, “your best thinking got you here.”  The “best thinking” for transforming government – privatization, reorganization, consolidation, accountability, and incentive schemes – got us in the mess we are in. New thinking will get us out.

We are not defective.

There is nothing inherently wrong or dysfunctional about the public sector. We are not genetically predisposed to be slow, expensive, and hard to deal with. Rather, we suffer from an incurable affliction – lack of competition. Any organization, public or private, with hostage customers struggles to improve. Monopolies act like monopolies. There simply is not the day-to-day incentive to get better that competition provides. So what can we do? Act as if. If we had competitors, what weaknesses would they exploit? What changes would we have to make if our “competitors” were beating us? Go make those changes. The surrogate for competition is high expectations.

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We are not different.

Sure, government is unique. From politics to regulation to conflicting citizen agendas, we have our hands full. And the political and policy making realms are a whole different world. But the operations of government – and the issues plaguing the operations – are no different than those faced in manufacturing, health care, education, or the service sector. All organizations are collections of systems (processes that produce “widgets” for “customers” in order to achieve results.) These systems are easy to see in manufacturing, where the factory, widget, customers, and bottom line are all tangible. They are harder to see in government because we often produce invisible things for people who don’t want them for reasons we can hardly articulate much less measure. When we change this mindset and make our systems visible, we can more easily identify and implement solutions that vastly improve our processes.

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It is not a people problem.

We have hard working people trapped in dysfunctional systems. To use a different metaphor, the pipes of government – the systems we use to deliver water to our customers – are a kinked up, twisted mess. Ravaged by years of CYA, budget cuts, reorganizations, and half-finished technology projects, the systems of government simply don’t have the capacity to keep up. We can’t get the water to those who need it. Consequently, the pipes are leaking, water-pressure is building, and there are pools of customers waiting to be served. To paraphrase Peter Scholtes, “all of the empowered, motivated, teamed-up, incentivized and accountable people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.” We have to improve the capacity of our systems before we focus on the capability of our people.

To improve government, we have to improve the systems of government: to continually analyze and transform what we do, how we do it, who we do it for, and why. Our systems – our pipes – is where all the action is. Our results come from our systems. Our customers show up in our systems. Our employees work in our systems. Our costs are in our systems. And our systems are a mess.

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Changing Systems