Digital Leadership Moves

As we move deeper into the Information Age, leaders must help us move forward on the risks and returns of innovation.
October 4, 2006
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Effective leaders pay careful attention to needs for continuity. With stakeholders demanding traditional values and services, leaders ignoring continuity tend to get defeated at the next election.

At the same time, effective leaders also respond to needs for change. In the long term, the major benefits for society -- and the key challenges for leaders -- come not from redistributions among today's ways of doing things, but rather from innovations that increase productivity.

As we move deeper into the Information Age -- which began after World War II and is expected to continue for much of the 21st Century -- leaders must increasingly succeed with the "change agenda." They must help us move forward on the risks and returns of innovation. This takes guts.

More and more, it also takes good judgment about how digital information and technologies can be used for new divisions of labor. As many have observed, we're moving from hierarchical to networked organizations and governance. Powering this transition, there are three increasingly large leadership moves -- based on remote service, simplified service, and outsourced service.

What is the essence of these moves? And what are the challenges for governors, mayors, and other leaders?

1. For remote service, it's reforming service distribution and continuing to work with CIOs and customers. In a world of pervasive computer networks, services can now be accessed over the net, anytime, from anywhere. Government can deliver "Online, not in line." Over the past decade, leaders have pursued these possibilities with substantial success. The public has benefited through easier interactions with government. Progress continues and without much opposition. Service distribution is changed dramatically, but production (and the lives of production workers) stays rather constant.

The challenge for governors and mayors is to keep working with CIOs and customers to expand and integrate remote online services for a wider range of transactions. This is important work, and almost always a no-brainer: just do it.

2. For simplified service, it's reforming production processes and working with COOs and program managers. Harvesting the economies of computer-based work requires changing jobs and simplifying workflow for the entire government enterprise, not just for service delivery. Massive opportunities for consolidation and simplification exist through "shared services" in the redesign of data centers, financial services, human services, customer services, vehicle maintenance, eligibility determination, etc. If well supported by digital information, government workers and clients can handle many tasks on a "self-service" basis; this yields quicker, cheaper, and more accurate results. These changes are more difficult to make happen than for remote service, since jobs are changed or eliminated as costs are cut.

The challenge for governors and mayors is providing the decisiveness and tenacity required for implementation. Newly forming administrations -- like those to be assembled after this fall's elections -- offer attractive opportunities. Reform agendas, if developed early on, can blossom before the next election. Get prepared, as shared services are ripe.

3. For outsourced service, it's reforming the entire value chain by working with industry, other leaders and the public. Digital networks improve the visibility and trust needed for coordination via negotiation rather than via command and control. With low-cost coordination, governments can efficiently acquire support work from outside specialists. This makes it easier for all the institutions (public, private, non-profit) in a given policy community (health care, homeland security, education, etc.) to reform together and more effectively. Outsourcing and policy community redesigns are typically the latest to emerge as digital reforms ripple through the society. Since they transport jobs from one jurisdiction to another, these changes are inherently the most political.

The challenge for governors and mayors is working with leaders outside government. While internal reforms may largely be delegated to a chief operating officer, external reforms demand more from the CEO (the "chief elected official" and his or her senior team). Success requires focused commitment and adaptive leadership.

The moves described above are not always top-of-mind for political leaders or the public, but they serve as fundamental building blocks for the future. They can often -- but not always -- be successfully implemented by effective leaders.

What we need next are the governors, mayors, and other leaders willing to step up to the challenge.