PolicyOps – A Better Way to Create and Implement Government Policies and Programs?

Nearly 45 years ago, the United States landed two men on the Moon. It was not only an amazing technological achievement but also showed that the American government could achieve the big goals. All through the 20th Century, America’s government accomplished landmark mega-projects: the Hoover Dam, winning World War II, atomic power, the agricultural revolution, the polio vaccine, the space program, and the Internet.

Now, in the first 13 years of the 21st Century, the American government doesn’t seem as capable as it once was. According to a 2008 survey of 165 National Academy of Public Administration fellows, 68% agreed that the Federal government is “less likely to successfully execute projects today than at any time in the past” (Eggers and O’Leary, If We Can Put Man on the Moon, 2009, p. 234). Just in the last two decades there are many examples proving that the American government needs a new way to meet the big goals of this new century.

PolicyOps is one suggestion. PolicyOps (Policy Operations) is inspired both by Eggers and O’Leary’s study and the DevOps movement in information technology (IT) management. Turning first to the study, Eggers and O’Leary researched dozens of major government projects to develop the “Universal Journey to Success” and to unearth the traps hidden in the six stages of the Journey. According to Eggers and O’Leary, all successful public projects follow the same six steps:

  • The undertaking must start with a good idea.
  • The idea must be given specifics, often in the form of legislation, that become an implementable design.
  • The design must win approval, as when the bill becomes a law, signaling a moment of democratic commitment [“Stargate’ in the diagram].
  • There must be competent implementation.
  • The initiative must generate desired results.
  • Over time, both what is being done and how it is being done must be subjected to reevaluation. (emphasis in the original, p. 25)

Journey to Success

The Universal Journey to Success steps can also describe the steps in DevOps. DevOps (Development Operations) arose from the need of IT companies such as Flickr and Facebook to quickly make new software applications and fixes to their operations without causing service interruptions. Even though DevOps sounds technical it is actually a cultural innovation.

In many IT companies, there are essentially two divisions: development and operations. Development consists of developers who create the new applications that keep IT companies competitive and attract customers. Operations are the people who keep the current IT infrastructure working so that the applications are served out to the customers. The problem was that the divisions rarely collaborated with each other. Rather, new applications were “tossed” to operations to figure out how to integrate the applications into the existing infrastructure. Both sides would make unilateral changes which broke the new applications and/or the infrastructure. Much blamestorming, lost opportunities, and poor customer service would occur in cultures before DevOps.

DevOps prevented these problems by having development and operations learn to communicate and collaborate when creating applications and integrating applications into the infrastructure. The real power of DevOps is creating a “single view of reality.” Essentially, developers create their applications on a current replica of the infrastructure so that operators can easily integrate the new applications. This is accomplished by software solutions such as “Puppet” or “Chef” and test-driven programming practices. Communication and collaboration is much more effective when all participants are working from the same view of the current reality.

PolicyOps also strives to create a single view of the current environment that programs must run in. This requires policy designers have a current and realistic view of the implementation infrastructure along with the needs of the policy implementers who will integrate the new policy into the existing policy infrastructure. The FuturICT Project is an example of creating a single view of policy reality.

There is much more work to be done but I think that policy makers and policy implementers can effectively leverage the tools and techniques of DevOps to greatly increase the ability for accomplishing the big government projects that the American people need and want.

Suggested Readings:

Ball, P. (2012). Why society is a complex matter: Meeting twenty-first century challenges with a new kind of science. Springer.

Cartwright, N., & Hardie, J. (2012). Evidence-based policy: A practical guide to doing it better. Oxford University Press.

Eggers, W.D., & O’Leary, J. (2009). If we can put a man on the Moon: Getting big things done in government. Harvard Business Review.

Loukides, M. (2012). What is DevOps? O’Reilly Media.

Manski, C.F. (2013). Public policy in an uncertain world: Analysis and decisions. Harvard University Press.

McGinnis, J.O. (2013). Accelerating democracy: Transforming governance through technology. Princeton University Press.

Walls, M. (2013). Building a DevOps culture. O’Reilly Media.

Disclaimer: All views and opinions are solely my own and do not reflect the views and opinions of my employers or any organizations that I belong.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply