Government is notorious for stagnation. When words like “cutting edge” are uttered, they’re usually in reference to the private sector (or an early-’90 figure skating rom-com). In an industry like this, you often have to play catch-up before you can innovate. (I experienced this firsthand when I worked to help New York City departments start taking online payments—well into the age of Amazon.)
But if you’ve chosen a career in government—or any other slow-to-change industry—chances are you’re there in the name of progress. Working in government operations, my job was to replace antiquated, inefficient processes with ones that worked better, faster, and cheaper. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I failed, unequivocally. But failure is nothing if not an effective teacher. Here are some of the lessons I learned in pursuit of a more efficient government that could help anyone trying to affect change in the face of major bureaucracy.
1. Seek Better Practices, Not Best Practices
Management speak has infiltrated even the ranks of government: “Let’s leverage a synergistic approach to innovate toward a robust solution!”
Perhaps the favorite among a long list of these tired expressions is the idea of best practices, a phrase that gets thrown around like a cowboy at the rodeo. As a project manager in New York City government, part of my job was to research how other governments and private companies managed some aspect of their operations, and determine whether we’d have something to gain by replicating their successes. We held forums and drafted PowerPoint presentations galore, all in the name of pinpointing a practice, calling it the best, and vowing to adopt it for ourselves.
But, as I realized, the idea that something is the best implies that it can’t be topped. It suggests that you’ve searched exhaustively. It assumes that the application of a principle in one setting will work just as well in another. The notion of best practices is on the right track, but if you really want to affect change, you’ll have to adjust your target to better practices. It’s not just semantics; it’s a complete reframing of the goal.
Better practices mean that once the best practice has been identified or implemented, your job is far from done. Better practices take into account that in order to stay on top of your game—whether that game is park maintenance, crime reduction, or something a little more private sector—your practices must never stop evolving.
2. Look Beyond the Data
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once tweeted, “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.” We live in the age of data-driven decision-making. And this is largely a positive development—anything that’s not backed by numbers is just an opinion, a theory waiting to be proven. The problem is that we often treat data as fact, and numbers, like George Washington, as incapable of lying.
This is far from true. First of all, the same numbers can be used to tell different—even opposite—stories. How did those who supported banning the sale of soft drinks over 16 ounces make their case? Numbers. And how did their opponents make theirs? By using the same numbers in a different context. As Mark Twain once quipped, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics more pliable.” What’s more, not every government employee gathering data is a regular Nate Silver. Flaws in data collection and analysis often lead us to misinterpret what numbers might be trying to tell us.
The lesson: Yes, decisions should be driven by data, but exclusively focusing on it obscures part of the picture, and it’s important to supplement the cold, hard numbers with qualitative research. If, for example, you want to know how small businesses will be affected by a new regulation, ask them. With tools like SurveyMonkey, this kind of canvassing can be done using limited resources. It offers up nuance that data can’t, and it hints at shades of gray between the black and white.
3. Buy-in is Key
You’ve got an idea, laid out an implementation plan, and developed a budget. That’s the easy part. Now you need to convince the powers-that-be to champion the change. You might call this executive sponsorship, but what it really means is ensuring that the people with the authority to enforce the change are fully on board. The best way to get this kind of buy-in is by presenting meaningful projected outcomes: dollars to be saved, paper to be eliminated, customers to be reached by the new initiative. You may have come up with the Porsche of ideas, but even a Porsche needs gas to move an inch.
But buy-in from the top down isn’t the only kind that will pave the path to substantial change. Think about all the people this change might touch, and try to avoid blindsiding them with it. Let’s say you’re implementing new technology to expedite the process by which clerical staff members complete their daily recordkeeping. Engage this staff from the start, draw out their frustrations and ideas, and incorporate them, to a reasonable extent, into the final product. A group of people that have been listened to and included in the change-making process, rather than having it imposed upon them, is much more likely to take the change in stride (and even welcome it).
4. Seek Changes That Serve Most, but Not All
Here’s the part where I take back some of what I said above. While it’s important to gather feedback from a variety of stakeholders as you shape the change you hope to implement, trying to please everyone can be a recipe for the slow and painful death of an otherwise solid idea. Over-customization was an especially frequent setback in technology projects I worked on as a project manager. With only the best intentions to develop the best possible product, the team often got bogged down in requirements that would take an entire week to build but only serve the needs of 2% of the users.
Sometimes you have to pull out the magic red pen and simplify. Think about the audience you’re serving and the top priorities you’re looking to accomplish. Anything that strikes you as a luxury, or as the request of a small group of particularly loud people, should be considered for the chopping block. It will save you time and money. And ultimately, it’s better to please the majority by delivering results quickly and effectively than to disappoint everyone because you’ve drowned in the details.
5. Be Patient
Finally, remember that change in government—or any other bureaucratic industry—is possible, but it is slow. Sometimes you need to wait for political winds to shift direction. Sometimes it’s the legislative process, or a contract that keeps getting stuck in the procurement office.
One of the most gratifying changes I got to have a hand in was that online payments project, bringing New York City departments out of the ice age of paper checks and ledger books and into the new millennium with electronic payment and accounting systems. It’s by no means sexy, but it’s saving the city millions of dollars. And it took a full four years from the time the briefing document floated across my desk until a full-fledged program was up and running.
If you’re all about quick fixes, you’ll be hard pressed to find them anywhere across the landscape of a government (or otherwise bureaucratic office). But believe me: Big change is worth the wait. In fact, it’s probably why we do the job in the first place.