What the American Revolution Can Teach Us About Government Management

It's the Fourth of July. Let's blow something up.
by | July 2, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
American flags

I’ve been watching the “America: The Story of Us” series when I've been traveling this summer.  It’s a decent attempt at fitting hundreds of years worth of history into an hour-long show.  It's got a lot of what you should have learned in fifth grade, sprinkled in with some trivia and played out with live action and some very appealing sets.    

My favorite so far is episode two, "Revolution." The show a follows a defiant group of merchants and out-of-work dock-hands as they declare war on the strongest military force on the globe -- and how a group of colonies decided to stand together and become a nation.

How could this group, along with farmers, blacksmiths, and anyone else they could inspire take on the mighty Red Coats?  An innovation to the long rifle, unconventional tactics in battle, and a resolve to change their way of life all played roles in winning our Revolutionary War; lessons that I think we could use today as we free ourselves from the tyranny of bureaucracy.

OK, that’s a stretch. But be prepared: It only gets worse from here.

An Innovation to Our Long Rifles

By cutting grooves into the barrel of American rifles, patriots were able to shoot farther and more accurately than their British counterparts.  It wasn’t actually an American innovation as much as some borrowed engineering from the Germans.   

If we today are going to fight the tyranny of bureaucracy, we need better rifles.  It might behoove us to look at who has a better design and copy or enhance it.  After all, our citizens are getting their information at the click of a button, seeing the costs of PCs and laptops drop tremendously, and starting to see the return of great customer service.   It won’t be enough for us to learn from each other and try to be best in government.  We need to steal -- I mean, borrow -- innovations from our counterparts in the private sector.  

Of course, be warned: The private sector doesn’t hold some magic key that unlocks the improvement door.  We need to borrow only the things that make sense. Spiraled barrels, yes; the Volkswagen Phaeton, no. 

Unconventional Tactics

If we’re going to change the world of government, we need to change our tactics.  In a world where two armies lined up in a field and faced each other head on, American revolutionists were looked at as barbaric for hiding in trees and targeting officers. But we all know how that turned out.  The "Story of Us" series even discusses how Gen. George Washington, the man who could not tell a lie, used an elaborate network to out-spy the British.    

I don’t suggest we start spying on anyone, but I do suggest we abandon the regular tactics for something new.  Website redesigns, pay for performance, and employee suggestion programs have not revolutionized the world yet. So why do we keep relying on them?  It’s time to hide in the trees -- or, more appropriately, in the pipes of government -- and pick off the most strategic targets, the core things we do.

Resolve to Change

Why did King George III eventually abandon the fight for the colonies?  The British pulled out because the people of England were tired of fighting a war that seemed a world away. They were tired of the expenses, and tired of their business ventures in the new world being disrupted.  Sound familiar?

Change is going to take a long time, particularly when you're talking about changing the culture of government.  We’re going to have to live with the bad stereotypes and jokes for a lot longer before we start hearing more people say, “I wish that business would run more like government."  

We need people who are invested in the change, people who believe in their hearts that they are fighting for the right thing and will never stop, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.  Patriots fought for their freedom. We fight to increase our capacity to do more good for our customers.  Our goal is nothing short of improving service delivery, maximizing returns on the taxes we invest, and finding innovative ways of helping our most needy.


It’s the Fourth of July, the time we take to celebrate our freedom, to eat red meat cooked over a charcoal grill, and blow things up.  Let’s start by blowing up our way of thinking and then changing way we do our work.   


We’ll return to our normally scheduled programming “Where Change Doesn’t Happen” in 10 days. But for now, join the discussion by telling us your favorite firework  (I personally like the bottle rockets that screech as they fly), and what government bureaucracy you think needs a revolution.