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The Problem With One-Stop Government

It was a big improvement for permitting and other forms of service delivery, but it's already outdated. The new goal should be no-stop government.

Several years ago, I wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in which I suggested that if McDonald's emulated government it would have customers order their buns at one store, their meat at a second, and so on for the drink and fries. Since that time, service delivery at the local-government level has improved greatly, and one-stop permit centers have in many places replaced confusing, geographically dispersed approval processes. So the new analogy would be a McDonalds where in one restaurant you could move easily from counter to counter ordering your bun, then ordering your meat, then giving your credit card, and so on.

One-stop represented a major breakthrough, but one that's now badly outdated.

If we peer behind the private-sector curtain, we'll see that both online and brick-and-mortar retailers have learned how to take data from a number of different sources, aggregate that information into a single repository, and use it to both complete an order and recommend products when they anticipate we'll need them. The approach has disrupted the one-stop, big-box retail model that in the 1980s and '90s had already upended mom-and-pop shops.

A local government that reduces forms or doors that an applicant must make their way through is on the right path. But forms and doors are both analog -- not digital -- concepts. Residents should not be forced to complete even online forms in order to accomplish a regulated activity. Instead they should be responsible for insuring that government has all the necessary information it needs to make a decision, so government can in turn make forms and doors obsolete.

Recently, researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Australia and the University of Münster in Germany explored the concept in detail in an article in Government Information Quarterly. "Where a one-stop shop reduces the number of forms by integrating the front end," they wrote, "a no-stop shop omits information exchange from the citizen to the government altogether in the course of service delivery and its subsequent operational execution."

Let's imagine that a family moves into a city that's recently adopted a no-stop-shop service-delivery model. Behind the scenes, agency integration means that information related to their address is already accessible within their local government's databases and -- should they opt in -- even more data can be assembled for them. The most pertinent information is disseminated to the family immediately so they can make their move-in as easy as possible: how trash pickup works, street sweeping schedules and parking restrictions in their immediate area, transit options, and how to apply for alarm and dog licenses. Families also would be screened for benefit eligibility.

Within a year, the family grows by one and they provide just a little new information to complete the official registration and birth certificate at the hospital. As new parents, the no-stop shop is a welcome model that understands how pressed for time and overwhelmed they've become. Information about postpartum support, children's recreation opportunities, child-safety product recalls and school enrollment are sent to the family at appropriate times, saving time and stress. In accordance with nudge theory, government sets a series of opt-out and opt-in service-delivery models that mean that a family -- even if they are not paying attention -- will do well.

Of course, there are a number of steps that need to be taken to realize the no-stop shop. Government must eliminate paper, personalize its services, and understand when opt-in permission is required. Behind the scenes, government must push to eliminate agency silos, bringing their data together in a fluid fashion so information is no longer isolated between agencies.

The private sector has paved the way for much of this technology. It also has uncovered some of the flaws with it: When service delivery becomes predictive rather than just proactive, we run the risk of getting things wrong and doing harm in the process. In addition, officials must be sensitive to privacy and work to protect their constituents' data.

Still, all signs point toward the adoption of a no-stop-shop model in government. The forces pushing in that direction are simply too powerful to ignore. Data siloing and antiquated, redundant government forms are costly sources of inefficiency. That's why Austria, Estonia, Poland and other countries have already begun to implement a "once-only principal" for data collection. Their aspiration is that data should be collected, stored and shared so effectively among agencies that basic information should never have to be asked for twice.

A hundred years ago, government regulatory reform created the need for multiple forms and reviews. Today, with the achievability of no-stop, no-form governance, we have the opportunity to deliver public services efficiently while reducing red tape and frustration. Governments at all levels should be moving in that direction as quickly as they can.

Cities across America and around the world are working to find new ways to discover and address civic problems and improve public services through the integration of data into governance. Best practices, promising case studies and the work of top innovators from government, industry and academia are the focus of Data-Smart City Solutions (, a continuing project of the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. And for more on the subject from Stephen Goldsmith, follow him on Twitter at @GoldsmithOnGov.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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