Tag Archives: bureaucracy

Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

Bureaucrat

Bureaucrat

There is an entrepreneur in almost every government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

“Innovation” is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I’ve contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is “innovation”?

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and Innovation

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its “bureaucracy”.   Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying “we treat everyone uniformly and equally” even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure.”

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of “innovation” as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don’t necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle’s antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.  But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City’s response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don’t become overgrown by weeks or marked by graffiti.   In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.    In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such “government intrusion”.

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.

 “Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  “The idea of ‘public entrepreneurship’ may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.”   He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has “institutionalized innovation” (and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used “tried and true” (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because “this is the way we’ve always done it” and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.

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Filed under 311, employees, government, innovation, open data

– Dang Guvmit Bure-crats

Bureaucrat

Bure-crat checking the Rooles

“Dang Guvmint. Takes too much of our hard-earned tax dollars and hires all those danged burecrats to waste taxpayer money feeding at the public trough pushing paper and regulations keepin’ us hard-workin’ Americans down. “

Certainly there is a movement in the United States today which believes government is too big, too wasteful and burdens the economy on the backs of the “average” American citizen. This attitude is certainly a central tenant of those who believe the “Tea Party” line of thinking.

The truth, of course, is almost exactly the opposite.

Who are those “dang guvmint bure-crats”?

Are they the 1.4 million members of the active duty armed forces who regularly spend 12 to 18 months fighting our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as being deployed throughout the world in places as diverse as Kazakhstan and Bosnia and South Korea? Or maybe they are the 848,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers who are regularly uprooted from their families for two or three deployments overseas? People like Major Aaron Bert of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department who has deployed three times, once each to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Djibouti. (I have a special affinity for Reservists, having served 22 years in the United States Army Reserve retiring as a Reserve Major).

Are those bureaucrats the two million police officers, firefighters and paramedics (many of them volunteers) who respond to our urgent calls to 911 for help when we are having heart attacks or are struck by drunk drivers or have our purses snatched or are trapped inf burning buildings? Bureaucrats like the 394 firefighters who died running up the stairs of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?

Perhaps the bureaucrats are the 3.5 million public school teachers who barely make a living wage and yet are expected to educate classrooms too full of often-disrespectful kids who sometimes are undisciplined at home? Or the tens of thousands of employees at our premiere public universities such as the Unviersity of Washington who have made those schools the best on the planet – so much so that thousands of students are attracted from nations across the world.

I’m sure we could do without all those bureaucrats who maintain our highways and plow the snow from them in the winter (pushing snow rather than paper), or those pencil-necked geeks who maintain our water reservoirs, pipes and systems so we have safe drinking water or those desk-jockeys who staff our parks and recreation centers so we and our families can have fun after a day full of labor to pay our taxes.

Gee, why do we need those building officials and permit inspectors? Can’t we all be trusted to build our homes and businesses so they are earthquake-proof like the buildings in Haiti? And then there are those danged public health officials and nurses who run community health centers, and folks in the Department of Agriculture or the Food-and-Drug Administration who inspect our food and our restaurants – they are obviously just harrass wonderful businesses like the Wright-County Farms in Iowa who never ship salmonella-laden eggs, serve tainted food or prepare it in dirty kitchens.

Perhaps we can live without those State govmint bure-crats like child protective services workers or nursing home inspectors who cannot make a single mistake because if they do a child may starve to death or an elderly person may perish. Then there are those Federal government bure-crats like the Environmental Protection Agency who have to clean up the superfund site toxic messes made by private capitalist companies who made their money, polluted the environment, and left the cleanup burden to taxpayers. Why do spend tax dollars on a National Park Service or State Parks Service or Seattle Parks and Recreation Department? Good, honest tax-paying citizens can take care of those parks themselves and leave them in pristine condition, right?

Certainly we can do without the infernal Revenue Service similar agencies that collect taxes, beating them out of poor hardworking Americans so we can pay the soldiers and firefighters, and those other pencil-pushers who maintain our roads and public spaces. Dang bureaucrats like Vernon Hunter, a 68 year old Vietnam war veteran who was doing his job collecting revenue so we could pay our soldiers when a domestic terrorist, Joseph Stack, killed him while at the same time endangering the lives of 200 other American citizens.

And that tax burden! Why did you know that almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax? That indivdual income taxes take a smaller portion of the economy (6.4%) than any time since 1950 and corporate tax rates are the lowest they’ve been since 1936? (The source for these facts can be found here.)

Yup, those dang guvmint burecrats need to keep their hands off my social security and my Medicare and my god-given right to drive a car whether I have a license or not and no matter how intoxicated or high I am. We need to fire all those danged accountants who make sure the budgets are balanced and the money is honestly spent. And get rid of all those information technology bureaucrats who maintain the websites for government information or maintain the public safety radio networks for dispatching cops and firefighters, or who maintain the servers and software which prints all those useless Medicare and social security checks.

Then there is the Timothy McVeigh method for handling government.   Driving right up to the Alfred P. Murrah federal government building in Oklahoma City 15 years ago, blowing it up, killing not just 159 federal employees but nineteen of their innocent children in the childcare on the first floor too.

But you know, the FBI agents and information technology professionals and electric utility lineworkers and solid waste collectors have families too. They live in neighborhoods right next to people who don’t work in government. They mow their lawns and worry about paying their bills (and they pay their taxes, too). They worry about losing their jobs (if they haven’t already) in the Great Recession. They worry about the huge (and growing) federal deficit, and wonder if they will be able to survive in retirement. They attend church and buy groceries at the local store and have their kids in local schools. They want a good life for their children, and are proud of the quality of life they provide for all of America. They are dedicated to operating great libraries and museums, schools and colleges, transit and highway systems. You would not want to live in a nation without these “bureaucrats”.

They are proud citizens of cities like Seattle, states like Washington and the United States of America.

And none of us are “dang government bure-crats”.

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Filed under Fedgov, government