Why Pipes?

This month, the Public Great blog looks at why government processes are like a series of pipes, and why they're so clogged up.
by | August 4, 2010 AT 8:30 PM

Ken and I have been working together for over a decade. And in that time, we have used a lot of visuals and analogies to describe the work of government. Some of them, quite frankly, are not appropriate for print on a family-friendly website like Governing. But they have included everything from factory floors, cups and cars to a picture of the Titanic.

This past year, we've been focused on this idea of our work being like pipes. (Our fixation on this analogy has gotten to the point where it could be called an obsession.) The more we think about it, the more we use the analogy and the more we use it, the more we like it. If you have no idea what pipes I'm talking about, check out the introduction video, but for those of you who have heard or read about the pipes, let me give you an example of just how bad it's gotten.

My son's school is an older building with a lot of maintenance needs. There is a group of dads who routinely dedicate some time to help out with light maintenance and painting. Last month we removed a trough from the fourth grade boys' restroom to replace it with new urinals. In order to get the new urinals in, we had to demolish some tile, along with (drumroll) some pipes. Now, my maintenance skills end with watching home improvement shows, but I was there to haul away trash and hopefully learn something from the real men. What I ended up doing was talking to the plumber for an hour about fittings, drainage and the most horrible pipes he's ever seen.

He's talking bathrooms, water mains and crawlspaces. I'm hearing procurement, unemployment and human services. I have pipe-itis. I see or hear pipes and I think about our business processes. Here's why.

The pipes we needed to get to that day at the school were behind a stinky trough and some ceramic tile. The "customers" of the pipes never saw them, the owners of the pipes never saw them, and the people tasked with overseeing the school never saw them. The only time the pipes have ever been discussed in the last decade was once when there was a leak, and even then the discussion went something like this: "What's that smell?" "Call a plumber to fix it."

The work of government is the same. Because we don't see our work like an assembly line, pumping out widgets, we instead view it as service work and we don't see the process that goes into delivering our programs. And when we don't see it, how do we expect customers or legislators to see it — much less understand it? Our work is hidden behind walls and buried underground, just like the pipes, and the only time we even think about it is when they spring a leak.

Once we had knocked out some tile and exposed the pipe, we learned that what was there was only the remnants of what we needed for the bathroom we wanted. We couldn't just hang some shiny urinals up and head home. In order to get to the outcomes we wanted, we had to redo the pipes. In the same way, no one in government ever started a program thinking, "How can I frustrate my customers today?" The pipes they built at the time were designed for the social need and volume of the day, and most probably worked fine, like you expect a new pipe to.

But over time, that social need changes, we need to serve more people, and inside the pipes gunk and kinks have developed that clog up the flow. To get to our outcomes, we need to modify our pipes. Also, the volume of three new urinals flushing is more than the old drainage pipe could handle. It was fine for a trough, but was too small and at a bad angle for what we wanted. The volume of water was going to be too great.

Sound familiar? The volume of work we are tasked with in government today is at a 40 percent increase over recent years in areas like food stamps and human services and out pipes are just too small and not built for this volume. Like the urinals, it might kinda flush, but it won't run properly unless you find a way to address the pipes.

Fixing pipes is not easy. We had to be sure not to disturb the pipes wrapped in what was probably some asbestos. We had to measure twice, cut once, then cut a piece the right size, and we had to replace some stretches of pipe with some built for higher volume, and figure out how to assure proper, uh, drainage. We were lucky to have a very skilled plumber with us. And I was lucky he was patient with all my questions.

Our pipes aren't going to be easy to fix. It's one thing to expose them; it's another to have the skills and talents to do the plumbing we need. But the good news is that when we're done, our outcomes are even nicer than the sparkling white urinals. (That's hard to even write with a straight face. But the point is serious.) If we can fix our pipes, we improve our capacity to do more good. We can keep kids safer, get families food faster, keep air cleaner and make our taxpaying investors happier.

Why pipes? Because the Titanic sank and the cups runneth over and over and over. Because like our systems, pipes are in need of repair, but they are hidden. They are old and clogged, but they are essential to being able to successfully get to where we need to go.

Over the next month we are going to explore this analogy and share more on why we think our systems are like pipes. Perhaps more importantly, why the pipes are the only place we're going to make a difference. Our work is noble, our people are amazing. Our systems — our pipes — are a clogged-up mess.