Feedback loops: Measuring results is easier in the private sector

(Apologies to anyone outside the U.S. for this metaphor.)

Imagine waking up one morning to attend a soccer game. You arrive a bit late and the game is already in progress. What you see is mind numbing. The players all have padded gear on, stop play every time their awkwardly shaped brown leather ball touches the ground, waste time tackling each other, move ten yards at a time, etc. You can only conclude that what you’re observing is utter madness. Obviously, these people don’t understand the rules of soccer!

I think this is the frustrating experience of many business people when they observe or start working in government. (See a previous post on this: “Why can’t we be more like the private sector”) With all of the budget challenges facing our public sector, there have already been countless articles and ideas about how government needs to function more like the private sector.

In my 10 years of leading GovDelivery and our work exclusively with public sector clients across the U.S. and U.K., I’ve learned that, on the whole, public sector employees are completely rationale people in rationale entities making rationale decisions. Just like watching a football game and expecting soccer, watching public sector behavior and expecting General Mills or Ford, will leave you confused and frustrated by, but General Mills, Ford, Amazon, and all other private companies have a far simpler agenda — to make money — than does the public sector.

The public sector’s stakeholders include citizens with a broad range of expectations, values, and needs not to mention elected officials who are supposed to represent citizen’s needs, but sometimes miss the mark. The public sector has to consider the needs of future citizens, non-citizens, corporate entities, and employees as well. Combine these many complexities with the need for transparency and the additional constraints on public sector decision making, at least in a democracy, and it’s easy to appreciate the wonder that is our functioning government.

Andrew Hoppin, CIO of the New York State Senate, summarized the challenges of complex feedback loops in the public sector versus the private sector in an interview at the Gov 2.0 Expo earlier this year.

Andrew has worked in politics, technology companies, and now (very effectively) in government. He was recently recognized as CIO of the year in New York. He’s a problem solver and believes that government can get better feedback because of new engagement technologies made possible by Web 2.0. He has an excellent blog as well.

I agree with Andrew, and it’s imperative that we use metrics, but let’s not kid ourselves… public sector is never going to have it is easy as private companies. The first step to a more efficient and effective public sector is to step back and see its challenges clearly. If you understand the rules of the game being played, it’s far easier to improve performance.

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Stephen Peteritas

I agree but I think it’s more of a size thing. For the federal government to up and switch things it’s incredible difficult to do quickly and effectively especially when it calls for a complete overhaul. Where as a city gov could probably make the same change and see results exponentially faster just based on the smaller amount of people they serve and also people that are involved in implementing the change.

The same goes for the private sector. Much easier for a small business to make quick changes and see results in a timely manner than it is for a massive fortune 500 to experience the same.

Scott Burns

That’s a great point. I started my career consulting for large companies like telecom, and I always laugh when people talk about government being inefficient because I never have seen waste like I saw in the telecom company. They were huge and they were a monopoly. Management had very little idea how their decisions effected customers or their employees. I actually think Web 2.0 helps a lot with this. If I tweet @comcastcares and complain about service, they take notice and respond right away. That’s a bit what Andrew Hoppin was getting at. Technology allows the feedback loops to get a little tighter even in huge agencies. The TSA blog is another great example of this, and I saw Jeffrey Levy at EPA respond online last week to someone asking (with a somewhat negative tone) if any of EPA’s Web content is written by scientists (it is!).

Bryan Mohn

As a recent transplant from high-tech industry into federal service, I resemble your remarks. I will admit that I had many misconceptions of what this environment would be like based on military service (only remotely relevant, as it turns out) and my impression that AWCF organizations were intended to function akin to private sector corporations.

I realize my point of reference is a minority in the federal governement where most folks are working off appropriated funds, etc. In our world, we have to develop customers (internal and external) and compete for workload. Most of my technical staff is direct-billed to the job/customer. I am held accountable for metrics that are much akin to a private engineering or manufacturing firm, but in an environment that seems designed to prevent exactly that operability.

There is a huge learning curve making this transition, even for seasoned corporate managers. Up to this point, I have assumed it will all become clear once I manage to catch up on the mountain of training courses that I require due to coming in at a mid-manager level.