Recently I participated in a panel discussion as part of Singapore International Water Week. While in that country, I walked the world's first double-helix structure, a curved, 280-meter bridge that crosses over Marina Bay to Singapore's Marina Centre, linking area cultural, educational and recreational facilities. The project involved an ambitious level of infrastructure design and architecture not seen in the United States in decades.
My visit to the Helix Bridge contrasted sharply with my more-recent trip to Chicago. There, I traveled on a major commuter-train line with a bridge to one of its platforms which, after years of deferred maintenance, looked as if it were ready to collapse. The two experiences left me wondering how, in light of our current economic situation, America's governments can spur the level of creativity and innovation we need in the 21st century.
According to an Urban Land Institute/Ernst & Young report, "Infrastructure 2011: A Strategic Priority," governments with the best chance of striking a balance between investment priorities and funding shortfalls are those that "identify deficiencies and needs, develop long-range national and regional plans to address them, and harness an array of public and private resources to fund projects."
This thinking applies not only to infrastructure development and repair but to all aspects of government operations. But what determines how efficiently our communities can make these important decisions? The critical factor, it seems, is management.
The Government Accountability Office reports that local governments face a $225 billion structural budget deficit, or about 12 percent of their total spending. Addressing these shortfalls will require a commitment to permanent structural changes rather than one-time savings.
IBM's David Edwards set out to benchmark the 100 largest U.S. cities to assess and compare their relative efficiency. He examined publicly available data on factors such as population, geographic size and collective bargaining that are conventionally assumed to contribute to a city's efficiency. In the resulting white paper, "Smarter, Faster, Cheaper," Edwards found that, in reality, those factors had little impact on operational effectiveness.
Instead, his findings suggest that what determines how efficiently a city deploys its resources is management. He defines this function as the ability of government leaders to make strategic and operational decisions about "what services will be provided to which citizens" at what level and how.
Edwards learned, for example, that communities with city-manager forms of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than those with strong-mayor governing structures. This finding validates the assumption that placing executive authority in a professional, nonpartisan manager leads to more efficiently managed communities. Managers, writes Edwards, "are important. They influence outcomes."
If management makes such a critical difference in government efficiency, what strategic and operational decisions must local, state and federal managers and leaders make to create dynamic, efficient organizations?
Defining New Management
The old rules of management no longer apply. Janet Denhardt, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs, contends that the traditional management style of rationality, control, punishment for failure, and maintaining order and obedience has been replaced with strong values, experimenting and taking risks, asking questions, learning from failure, being open, confident and humble, and engendering trust and respect.
Today's turbulent world requires a new model of management. Fortune magazine senior editor-at large Geoff Colvin writes that successful managers:
—Pick up on subtle indicators unnoticed by the rest of us to predict environmental trends.
—Constantly focus on the horizon to understand the implications of the forces that will affect their organizations.
—Know more from seeing less. Successful managers can see and articulate a path even when in the midst of rapid change or chaos.
—Make more finely tuned discriminations and judgments than others.
To Colvin's list, I'd add that successful managers:
—Rigorously evaluate what works and, most important, what doesn't.
—Commit completely to continuous learning and improvement.
—Lead and manage across sector boundaries (public, private, and nonprofit), intergovernmental systems and organizational divisions.
The December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review also examined the qualities that distinguish the most creative managers. These successful individuals connect seemingly unrelated ideas, question the status quo, and pay attention to their customers' behavior, wants and needs. They try new ideas and approaches and test their ideas on diverse audiences. They take on the biggest challenges and have a passion for their organization's mission.
In a day and age when old definitions and divisions no longer hold, government must find creative and innovative ways to meet increasingly complex societal problems within fiscal constraints. The role of government is changing, along with how it does its job. Because performance and results matter, as Edwards observes, creative, innovative management counts now more than ever.