Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Where Change Really Happens in Government: Who Will Save Us?

Government simply doesn’t have the capacity to do all the good we want to do in this world. Who will save us from this crisis and what can you do about it? In short: you, and everything.

Government is under incredible pressure right now. The economic crisis has hit us with a double whammy: exponential increases in demand and dramatically reduced resources. In other words, more people out of work need our services and we’re cutting 25% of our core budgets. Government simply doesn’t have the capacity to do all the good we want to do in this world. Who will save us from this crisis and what can you do about it? In short: you, and everything.

The work of government happens at 4 levels: politics, policy, performance and people. All 4 levels get jumbled together and are thought of as government. The reality is that each of the 4 levels has a distinct and important role to play – but one level is the most critical and also the most ignored.

Let’s look at a really simple analogy. Suppose there is a big societal problem – people are thirsty. For whatever reason there is a thirst epidemic and people are turning to government for the answer. Here is where the four levels of government kick in.

  1. Politics. Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative. Incumbent vs. challenger. How do the politicians deal with the thirst crisis? An ideological debate about whether people should find their own water or whether everyone should have equal access to affordable, high quality water. The ideological debate is funded on both sides by interest groups who have an enormous stake in if or how the problem gets resolved.
  2. Policy. Eventually the politicians lay down their arms and agree that the people need water and that government will play a role in making that happen. This is where policy kicks in. Policymaking deals with the questions of who gets the water? How much can they have? If they have water can they also have bread? Who will pay for the water? Policymaking is performed by the politicians, interest groups and senior management of affected agencies.
  3. Performance. The performance of government deals with how we actually deliver the water to those who need it. The politicians have decided people need water, the policy makers decided who gets it and how much, now the managers of government create systems (processes, procedures, tools) to deliver good water to people as efficiently as possible. The performance of government is the pipes used to deliver the water to “customers”. The role of government managers is to continue to find ways to maintain and improve the pipes so we have enough capacity to meet the demand.
  4. People. Inside all the “pipes” of government are the people of government. Their tasks combined with other people’s tasks are what move the water through the pipes. They are creating specifications for the water, contracting for the water, inspecting water producers, permitting the water, generating water vouchers, etc.
When people think of government they jumble all four together. Outrageous acts by politicians make government workers look bad. Bad policies make the performance of government look bad.  Poor performance makes politicians look bad. It’s all a giant mess and everyone blames each other. It’s easy to just throw up your hands and say, “it doesn’t work”. But it can work if we focus in the right place – the pipes, performance.

We can’t change politics. No matter how many tea parties we throw or how loud we chant, “yes we can”, the political system isn’t going to change much. And honestly I’m not concerned. Politics to me is like a European soccer match. There are two well-funded adversaries clashing in front of a noisy crowd filled with crazy face-painting extremists freaking out every time the ball moves. The media hangs on every advance and retreat. And at the end of all of this drama?; Rarely does anyone score. The current political system is not designed to solve problems.

We also can’t change the people of government. No matter how many personal development plans, personality profiles (am I a Lion or a Moose?) or change management brain washings we endure we are fundamentally the same. And again I’m not concerned, because I don’t believe the issues we face in government are people problems. Government is full of hard working people. Sure we have the occasional loafer, the crabby lady at the DMV or the pinhead who drives the state car to the strip club but they are a tiny minority. In fact the number one thing private sector people who come to work in government tell me is that they are surprised how hard public sector people work (both in duration and complexity). These hard working people are trapped in amazingly dysfunctional systems (pipes). And that is where our focus has to be – fixing our pipes - the performance of government.

We can change the pipes. Our people can only be as productive as the pipes will allow. Our political aspirations and policy aims can only be achieved through the performance of our pipes. And as we will discuss in posts, podcasts and chats to come here on Public Great, our pipes are a mess. They are kinked up, rusted out, twisted and about to burst.

Who controls the pipes? You. Who has to fix the pipes? You, the managers of government, are the only ones who can. Here’s who can’t -- politicians, policy makers and employees.

The politicians. For whatever reason, and I can’t totally figure it out – few elected officials care about the performance of government.  Working around politicians on both sides for over 15 years I have lamented watching campaigns that focused on improving government followed by administrations who do little or nothing to actually impact performance. At best, the try to fix performance through policy and laws, but the pipes remain clogged.

Politicians and elected officials rarely care about performance. But they should. Politicians want to tackle big new stuff. Ironically, our ability to tackle big new issues is influenced by how we are performing handling the old issues. The health care debate was framed by cogent arguments like “you want the people who run the post office and DMV to run your hospital?” Our government friends in Canada have a great motto: Performance=Trust. People’s trust in government to solve problems (currently at an all time low) is shaped by their experience with the performance of government. If we can’t get them a birth certificate before they get their death certificate, they will rightly question our ability to improve health access.

Elected officials also need to care about performance for one simple reason - capacity. Elected officials take office with bold agendas and big plans. They want to do more things, great things.  But they quickly realize they can’t do any of it, because the pipes have no more capacity.

They want programs to improve family self-sufficiency but the social workers are maxed out. They want to increase literacy but the teachers' hands are full. I sympathize with all the elected officials right now who will basically spend their entire terms in office figuring out how to shrink the pipes, not how to quench thirst.  If they are ever going to get to their agendas, someone has to figure out how to move a ton of water through some narrow, kinked up pipes.

The policy makers. There is no doubt policy has huge impact on pipes. Vague rules, overly burdensome requirements or funding restrictions can kink up the pipes seriously slow the water down. But we can’t change policy in the abstract, rather we change policy as we examine and improve the pipes. Too often the pipes are subordinate to the policies. Policy makers need to spend time in the pipes to see exactly what impact their decisions have on the water flow. The managers of the pipes need to continue to challenge policy constraints and make compelling business cases as to why change has to occur.

The employees. The employees work in the pipes – they don’t create the pipes. They don’t make the rules or order the equipment. They show up each day to do their best work within the confines of the system created for them. Further, they are usually in one small piece of the pipe and actually don’t see the whole pipe because they are organized by unit, section, bureau, division and department – not by pipe. Their success is greatly dependant on the work done upstream from them and will be greatly influenced by the work done downstream from them. Individuals can do much to improve their own productivity, but rarely have any influence over the productivity of the entire system. This is why employee suggestion programs rarely yield organizational transformation. Employees can see and improve their piece of the pipe but this may have no bearing on the overall performance of the system.

This is where you come in. The managers. The people responsible for the pipes. To mix my metaphors – you are the plant managers. You aren’t the board of directors, or the CEO. You manage the factories of government. Your job is to:

  1. Design the process in collaboration with the workers inside the process, to efficiently produce the widgets;
  2. Work with customers to figure out what a good widget is and collaborate on how to make it better;
  3. Work with the suppliers to make sure what comes into the plant is good;
  4. Communicate with senior management and the board of directors about what is being accomplished and what is constraining performance; and,
  5. Create an environment where workers can be productive, engaged and make a difference
Simply, your job is to continuously improve the system for the betterment of the organization, its employees and its customers.

To change government we don’t need to fight the political machine. We don’t need to hire a lobbyist or train millions of government workers on how to think and work differently. Rather we need to focus on the plant managers - about 10% of the public sector workforce. Support them, develop them and give them what they need to increase government’s capacity to do more good.


What do you think? Why do so few politicians and elected officials care about performance? What have you tried to do to get them involved? What works? What doesn’t? Should we even try? If you are an elected official, what am I missing? What don’t I understand?

Founder of the Change and Innovation Agency
Special Projects