The changing role of government

By Mark Capaldini, GovDelivery

The role of government has evolved over time as citizen needs have changed. Today, government is being called on to do more with less. But with limited resources and a need to focus those resources on critical needs, the role of local government must evolve yet again.

In Governing’s November 2011 edition (p 20), there was an article entitled “Full-Service Government Comes to an End,” by Paul W. Taylor. The article focused on the many requests that come through for government employees to resolve. In particular, he noted that in Longmont, CO, “an internal analysis showed that up to 38% of the police departments calls for service did not need a uniformed officer – they needed a neighbor.”

This is only one example, but it raises a large question: Should government become an “information clearinghouse,” helping citizens find and act on information, as well as be a service provider? Should local government become a significant information and services hub, linking citizens to the most appropriate community resources for their needs?

For many years, government has been a “services provider.” But maybe that role needs to expand to “a services and information provider“? For some issues, precious government resources aren’t the best or most cost-effective solution. Other service providers, including neighbors, community groups, civic organizations, churches, non-profit organizations, etc., may be able to provide faster, better, and less expensive solutions.

We all have an interest in government cost-efficiency. When problems or challenges can be resolved faster and better, regardless of who is delivering the service, everyone benefits from a win-win situation.

This, of course, implies an expanded role for government websites – assuming that they can provide the most cost-effective channel for connecting the public to answers and resources. In addition to posting information on the website, subscription alerts, delivered by email, SMS text messages, RSS feeds, and other digital channels, can provide very specific, highly tailored, fast, and inexpensive options for fulfilling the “information clearinghouse” role. Note that such offerings provide information proactively, not relying solely on Web searches and website visits by the public. In fact, such alerts may increase website visits by providing links that make finding specific information more easy.

Is “service and information provider” a potential new role for government? Would you like to see your local government provide a way to connect with your neighbors and other local residents to help resolve concerns or problems? What do you think of the ideas in the Governing article mentioned above? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Original post on Reach the Public.

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Profile Photo Steve Cottle

I love the idea behind this and hadn’t heard about a Citizens Connect ticket being preempted by a private citizen like this before. There will need to be some thought put into when it’s appropriate for government to provide service vs. information, but there are sure to be many instances where providing information is the most efficient and cost-effective way of being responsive to citizens.

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Profile Photo Bill Brantley

Great post and very timely! Interesting idea and you can see some aspects of that now. But, the big question is how do you manage accountability in this new configuration?

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Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Most cities have been providing these services for some time. But usually there’s not formal acknowledgement of it or a department dedicated to it. We all just view it as helping our citizens and try to fit it into our schedules.(Here’s a post I wrote about it a few years back: http://www.publicworksgroup.com/blog/2008/09/government-the-surrogate-parent/). It’s easy for government to serve as a clearinghouse for information because the local government does typically know everything going on – more than what I think people even realize or would want us to know. But there are some challenges to providing this service such as cost, mistrust of government, and perception of threat by the news media.

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Profile Photo David Dejewski

FEMA provides an example of the government-empowering-citizens evolution with their Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. I’m a trained member myself.

This program didn’t exist until 1965 – when it started as a small pilot. After the the Whittier Narrows earthquake in CA in 1987, the government realized the benefit of training ordinary civilians to respond and provide “buddy help” when ordinary government resources were overwhelmed – as is the case with major fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. The program slowly spread across the US. Today, CERT exists in 28 states plus Puerto Rico.

FEMA provides a standardized structure (the Incident Command Structure), online training, forms, etc. Local communities organize, start the program, and maintain a stable of trained volunteers for times of need. FEMA and local emergency services realize that citizens are going to be taking action in these circumstances anyway. So, they do what government does well – they provide the foundation and leave the work to people.

Our county has over 1200 trained CERT volunteers & this number grows every quarter. When those volunteers see an opportunity to spread the word (eg talking to schools, attending fairs, visiting shelters and retirement homes) they are encouraged to do so. I appreciate the power of communities like this one, so I started a Community Preparedness Online Community site myself – a natural extension of the evolving need citizens have to take care of themselves. This is a great example of what can happen when the government plays to it’s strengths, empowers the people with information and structure, and steps out of the way.

Great post, Mary! With reductions in budget, connecting with and empowering “neighbors” may be an attractive way for government to serve the people.

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Profile Photo Mark Tatchell

if we have learned anything from gov 2.0 it is that citizen centric services and sharing information/data with citizens to enable their participation and collaboration are both vital elements for open government. common to both is building platforms that put citizens interests and needs first. at the end of the day, information/data sharing may be another service government delivers that helps citizens make informed choices and engage more robustly with government.

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Profile Photo Mark Capaldini

Thanks for this conversation. I appreciate the comments, both pro and con, on the question I posed. In some ways, government has always been an information provider, because it anwered questions about whether or not it could help, and if so, how. In an era of constrained resource, the answer to an increasing number of questions will be “govt can’t solved that problem, but here is a way to access other resources that might be able to.” The telephone service centers operated by local government will receive significant numbers of general questions, even in the era of web search engines, because that is much easier for 15% of the population than doing a web search. Additionally, some of the local resources may or may not have a web presence that allows search engines to find them. If government can point to the most relevant local resources on its website, it can educate citizens to look there first, reducing the volume of calls on simple information request.

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Profile Photo Allison Primack

Got some awesome responses to this topic on GovLoop’s LinkedIn.

Dick Davies: “The changing role of government follows the changing practices of society. Any group that attempts too much falls into mediocrity. Better a little humility and exceptional service in a few well chosen areas. I was reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash over the weekend, and was disheartened by the portrayal of government workers as slaving to a stylized role of their own design. Right now we are increasingly getting much better results with many fewer people and much less cost in the private sector. That is the way forward, which may not be attractive to workers who can have full careers while disassociated from their agency mission.”


Raul EspinosaI agree wholeheartedly, with Dick’s assessment. As a matter of fact, and to put it bluntly, the government should and must not be allowed to perform anything the private sector can do and do it better, faster and more accurately than bureaucrats. Former Governor Mario Cuomo, once said, ” “It is not a government’s obligation to provide services, but to see that they are provided.”

More than 850,000 federal employees are engaged in commercial activities that duplicate and in some cases compete with private enterprise, including small business.

A colleague of mine, John Paliatelo, President of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition (BCFC) has said, “A government that does virtually everything that can be found in the Yellow Pages is simply too big to succeed,”

John pointed out that fifty seven years ago, this past weekend – January 15, 1955 – President Dwight Eisenhower promulgated a federal policy that is as relevant today as it was the day it was issued, if not more so.

Bureau of the Budget Bulletin 55-4 stated, “The Federal government will not start or carry on any commercial activity to provide a service or product for its own use if such product or service can be procured from private enterprise through ordinary business channels.”

While that document still exists, now found in Office of Management Budget (OMB) Circular A-76, the policy statement was removed in 2003. The current A-76 calls for public-private cost comparisons to determine whether federal employees or private contractors should carry out governmental activities that are commercial in nature.

Regrettably, even that common sense proposition is now dead. Congress enacted a provision in the recent ‘megabus’ appropriations bill to prohibit agencies from beginning or announcing ‘a study or public-private competition regarding the conversion to contractor performance of any function performed by Federal employees pursuant to Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 or any other administrative regulation, directive, or policy.

As a procurement watchdog for small businesses, my decision, which every small businesses owner need to consider – is to get mad against and adopt the rallying cry made famous by the award movie Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” It’s a way to “make a d

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Profile Photo Allison Primack

(continued from Raul Espinosa‘s comment on last post)

“…It’s a way to “make a difference.’


Let me give you an example. In my case, I’ve opposed the the clever, but unfair actions of regulators – prompted by the lobbying interests of the mega corporations which have monopolized public contracting – to continue diverting, without statutes, federal contracts away from small businesses through the ‘exemptions:’ $44 Billions in GSA Schedule contracts and another $20 Billion in overseas contracts.

You can get acquainted with the ‘Exemptions’ and the SBA views on it, which I’ve articulated on an OP-ED on this link, http://bit.ly/yeEfTM.

And, if you agree – I’m recommending the everyone get mad and file their opinion by February 15th..

All one has to do is visit the government regulations website on this link,http://1.usa.gov/zMeTfn; click on the “Submit a Comment’ link (to the right) and post a message to the Regulators. Consider something like this:

“I am as mad as hell at the regulations and I am not going to take their abuse anymore. The law says that Simplified acquisitions are exclusive for small businesses and there are no statutes authorizing exemptions. I agree and support the recommendations offered by FPA and its Umbrella Initiative Think Tank in their filing. The recommendations will bring transparency to public procurement and would effectively make set-asides work, as intended, to help level the playing field.”

Another way you can help is by joining the NFIB Coalition for Sensible Regulations (http://www.sensisbleregulations.org). Yes, you can get mad and make a difference!

How about it?”

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Profile Photo Raul Espinosa

I’m humbled and thankful for the responses to the many ideas and suggestions that have been shared on this blog. They are all excellent and inspiring. It demonstrate that people do care and that they want ti ‘make a difference.’ What’s needed now is not only to convince legislators of the need to shrink the bureaucracy, eliminate duplicative service, but also allow the private sector to actually perform those services.

The main role of the government is not to provide services, but to make sure that the services are provided.

In the arena of government contracting, for instance, the proliferation of government procurement websites with the excuse of ‘offering information’ is not entrepreneurial thinking. Taxpayers only need one website, fedbizopps or FPO as it is called, where ALL the agencies must be required to not only post their opportunities, but also post the awards (which most of them don’t do.)

If anything, the private sector is in a much better position to creatively conceive ‘solutions’ around FPO to better assist the service providers (i.e., SBDCs, procurement centers) – after their duplicative services are also eliminated. With the technology we have today, billions in taxpayers dollars can be saved and more efficient services.

Regardless, at this point, one thing we can all do is to ‘fight back.’ In my case, I am fighting against the regulations that abuse the rights of small and disadvantaged businesses. I write articles and OP-EDs to ehlp bring transparency to this arena. Here’s a link to a recent one worth reading, http://bit.ly/yHsaNt.

Ultimately, I would like to urge all small businesses to join the NFIB coalition for sensible regulations (http://www.sensibleregulations.org) and rally behind the crying call made famous by the move, Network, except with a caveat: “I’m as mad as hell at the regulations and I’m not going to take their abuse any more.”

Get mad, fight back and make a difference.

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