6 Do’s and 5 Don’ts for Getting Stuff Done in Government


Some mottos to live by if you work in government.

Earlier this week I wrote about the theory of systems thinking and how it can help you work through complex problems. But theory can only go so far. Below are some mottos my team and I live by to get stuff done when we’re working with local government to pursue resilient infrastructure projects.

(1) DO Turn a crisis (or the data from a crisis) into an advantage.

For two reasons. First, nothing motivates action like urgency. This is especially true in government agencies, when serving the public is the core mission. Second, crises often highlight where the greatest opportunities for change exist. From data about flooded streets during a hurricane, you may be able to deduce which storm water pipes don’t have enough capacity and prioritize investments. Capturing that information can be essential to both solving big problems, and designing better solutions.

(2) DO Focus on the lifeboat, not the sinking ship.

People may like to talk about problems, but what people love is to be involved in solutions. So, define a tangible end at the beginning. What will be the eventual outcome of your efforts? What does success look like? Remember:

  • A vision or idea is not a project or program,
  • Analysis is not an answer,
  • A strategy or report is a means to an end, not the end in itself.

You don’t have to (and probably should not) define a specific pathway to achieving your desired end result, but defining a clear end can be helpful in motivating people and action.

(3) DO Open silo doors from the outside.

Governments are easy to criticize for their bureaucratic silos, but that’s not entirely fair. All large organizations, including governments, are designed to withstand silo-busting behavior because constant lane changes on a highway can cause accidents. Silos can only be broken from the outside. Breaking a silo from within is rebellion. Breaking more than one is anarchy.

Can’t (or don’t want to) bring in a consultant or non-profit partner to step in as an outside facilitator? Structure a competition or even a simply a solicitation for ideas across departments. Building safe spaces and jargon-free zones will keep departments from taking a territorial or defensive posture of how another’s “innovation” could affect their bottom line or workload, and allow people to focus on collectively solving a shared problem.

(4) DO Let go of ideas, even good ones.

Not all ideas should survive. If they do, then you weren’t thinking big enough. When I was working with the City of El Paso, we developed ideas for new waste-to-energy investments that could generate electricity by creatively managing waste from unusual sources, such as the local branch of the Federal Reserve and the local zoo. While interesting and potentially viable, after multiple iterations, the idea proved to be a poor stand-alone fit for the city at the time. Sometimes ideas are too early for their time, too complicated, or too new. That is okay! Just keep them in your own personal parking lot.

(5) DO Make it easy for people to help you.

While everyone seems to be busier these days, people are also inclined to be helpful. You can harness their inclination to be helpful by making it easy for them. If you want someone to help you, ask for something specific. Try not to create more work for them, but if you have to – create as little additional work as possible. Send clear and concise emails with step-by-step instructions of, specifically, a person needs to do to help.

(6) DO Tell a great story.

In government, sometimes success is when something didn’t happen: the earthquake struck, and the buildings didn’t collapse. These kinds of successes are largely invisible to citizens, which makes communicating them difficult for elected officials. Instead, people notice when there are no art supplies at the community center or when the stoplights aren’t working. Telling a compelling story about your efforts – especially if the results are largely invisible – is paramount if you’re going to garner continuing, widespread support. Finding ways to celebrate quiet successes requires more creative approaches to data collection, monitoring and evaluation, story-telling, community engagement, and media.

Over the years we have also learned what not to do. So, here’s some recommendations so you don’t repeat our mistakes…

(1) DON’T Surprise people.

Especially elected officials.

(2) DON’T Build a committee.

Remember the phrase “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” People in government love creating committees and interagency/inter-department groups. Many times the committees don’t clearly define outcomes with associated timelines, resulting in months (sometimes years!) of standing meetings without a lot of tangible results. Create a coalition, not a committee.

(3) DON’T Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

You will likely never find a single solution that everyone is happy about. Just start somewhere.

(4) DON’T Be a butterfly.

Butterflies flit from flower to flower, but to get something done in government there needs to be a stable champion. Which means someone tirelessly working to learn, reposition, talk, and occasionally herd cats. If you want it to get done, you need to be the champion.

(5) DON’T Worry about who gets credit.

Success is a team sport. If you’re focused on getting credit, you’re missing the point.

If you like this, I highly recommend you check out this great piece from a public-sector innovator, Tom Khalil! A lot of our thinking aligns with his, plus he’s got additional tips for how to effectively managing personal relationships in government to get stuff done.

Elle Hempen is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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