“If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.” – The Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland
The refrains are familiar. Government is slow. Change is hard. Bureaucracies cannot adapt quickly. Yet when crises arise, governments have demonstrated a tremendous capacity to respond. And while we might (and probably should) attribute those response capabilities to the will of the human spirit, it’s easy to argue that government is at its best during a crisis.
Even so, government remains its own worst enemy. Antiquated technologies and processes can hinder those charged with being at their best during our worst times. Leaders know underlying problems exist and ignore them because they might not be pressing on a given day. The next crisis will hit whenever it wants (i.e., Texas winter storms). How can we turn the conversation from “lessons learned” to “fix it now?”
A mentor of mine frequently says that the first job of any leader is to define reality. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, to get to where we want to go, we must first know where we are. At the onset of the COVID pandemic, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made headlines in the government world when he said in an April 4, 2020, press conference “Literally, we have systems that are 40-years-plus old, and there’ll be lots of post-mortems. And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”
New Jersey was not alone. Numerous states struggled with an influx of unemployment claims, systems broke and the unemployed had yet another stressor added to a life suddenly turned upside down. But why? As long as I have been in government, states have talked about aging unemployment systems. Everyone knew how fragile they were. Yet the pandemic hit, the systems broke, and those on the front lines, and the customers they were trying to serve, were left carrying the load.
Defining reality can be humbling but it can be done without being critical. A facts-based approach that establishes priorities to fix long standing problems builds credibility for a leader at any level. Fixing those problems builds credibility even more.
Rethink Government Solutions
Technology is a cornerstone in rethinking government solutions, but we must ask a question – how much have we really learned about technology since the pandemic started? We knew videoconferencing worked. We knew governments ran major systems on outdated technology. We knew the marketplace has a bevy of offerings designed to improve government operations. What was preventing us from adopting and using new solutions long before the pandemic?
Rethinking government solutions can start with three questions:
- Do processes (i.e., procurement) impair or impede the adoption of new technologies and solutions?
- Do we understand the technology market, and does it understand us?
- How can we create our own marketplace behind the government procurement wall?
In defining reality, governments must acknowledge what they do well and what others can do better. With this understanding, governments can identify ways to apply core competencies from other sectors (such as the technology market) to speed up improvements to the customer experience.
Address the Crisis of Inaction
Crises reveal our angels and devils – the things we do well and the problems that we have ignored for a long time. What we see every time a crisis presents itself is that the human capacity to respond to tough times is amazing. What if we could harness this responsiveness (or even a portion of it) every day? We can if we rethink how government develops solutions.
Addressing the crisis of inaction requires leadership. And by leadership, I do not mean elected officials. I mean anyone who knows something needs to change and makes a case for improvements. In spite of negative perceptions of government capabilities, we see so many success stories these days. If we distill from these stories a path to action, we can begin to develop a framework for addressing the crisis of inaction at any level:
- Seek fast implementations and minimal disruption. New technologies enable quick wins. Find them and build credibility.
- Look for solutions designed with government use in mind.
- Tell a story that makes your stakeholders the heroes.
We will explore these points in a future blog. For now let’s leave with the thought that government can turn the table from “never let a good crisis go to waste” to “never let planning for a good crisis go to waste.” We know what needs to be fixed. Let’s fix it!
Patrick Moore serves as the Vice President for Business Development for Granicus, a software firm that is empowering a modern digital government. He was recognized by Government Technology as one of the nation’s “25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers” for his transformational tenure as Georgia’s state CIO and has served in executive roles for commercial technology and management consulting firms. Patrick has served as a Senior Fellow with the Center for Digital Government and was the lead contributor to a National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) project helping shape the role of the state CIO. Patrick lives in Atlanta with his wife and two boys. He is active in his church and is an avid runner.