A Shared Space for Operational Excellence

Governments looking for ways to improve efficiency now have access to a rich trove of good ideas and best practices.
by | March 21, 2017

Stephen Goldsmith

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Most state and local officials, perhaps contrary to the usual portrayal of government, constantly push to find better ways to accomplish the public's work at lower costs. In doing so, they often look to consulting groups to produce reports that expertly evaluate performance and recommend strategies for operational advancements. Over the last six months, a team of experts at the Harvard Kennedy School has been collecting and analyzing these reports so that a high-quality review from one jurisdiction can be helpful in another.

While each jurisdiction harbors its own localized nuances, governments face the same trials in modernizing. Many challenges -- such as successfully merging departments, providing effective technology structures and maintaining proper staffing levels -- are universal across governments. A consultant's recommendations to the state of Iowa about emergency service dispatch consolidation might, for instance, convey principles that can be applied to the same service in California.

In the quest for government excellence, this similarity in challenges facing governments creates an opportunity to share promising ideas, cost-saving strategies and best practices. At Harvard's Innovations in Government Program, we have worked with United States Common Sense, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy group dedicated to opening government data and resources to the public, to identify the best operational efficiency reports across state and local governments. We have reviewed more than 200 such reports and have carefully indexed what we judge to be the most promising 30 of them.

Our work pinpoints opportunities for cost savings, highlights recommended efficiencies and provides implementation guidance. We estimate that if recommendations featured in the project were implemented across state and local governments, $30 billion in value could be returned to taxpayers each year.

The project, known as "Operational Excellence in Government," exists on a recently launched open-access website and provides access to more than 2,000 free resources to inform and assist government transformation. The reviewed reports highlight various categories that reflect an array of operational challenges, including revenue enhancement and finance, workforce management, asset management and sustainability, data and information technology, performance and accountability, and public engagement.

 

While many of the recommendations suggest innovative practices, others address improving standard government operations. For example, Connecticut's Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes highlights consolidating social services contracts across human services departments, thereby reducing both governmental procurement costs and easing contract management issues while relieving providers of the cumbersome administrative work associated with maintaining similar contracts with multiple agencies. Memphis' new Strategic Fiscal and Management Plan suggests implementing a full pay-as-you-throw garbage removal program to produce cost savings. And a report entitled "Maximizing Efficiency in the New York City Government" focuses on shared services in many areas including asset management, outlining millions in cost savings that could be achieved by reducing the city government's real estate footprint, right-sizing government office space and adopting a modern workplace office format.

In all, we've identified more than 2,000 discrete suggestions from the 30 highlighted reports -- just the kind of best practices that state and local officials search for in hopes of improving their own operations. And for those who generate ideas, to have other governments replicate them is not only the best form of flattery but government at its best.

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