The Crucial Architects of Government

Delivery of public services is all about how government systems are designed. A good idea alone is not enough.
August 31, 2011 AT 11:00 AM
Babak Armajani
By Babak Armajani  |  Contributor
Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Delivery systems for government services—how we provide health care or transportation, assure that restaurant kitchens are clean, repair potholes, educate our young—are all the products of architecture. At one time, all of these systems were designed. In many cases, we have been living with these designs for so long that we haven't even considered that there are options. But fiscal pressures are pushing our thinking as never before, and "redesign" is becoming a hot topic.

A new idea for changing a delivery system is usually not the big stumbling block. Rather, the big challenge is how to get from where we are today to a new and better delivery system. In other words, transformation.

When a change you are guiding rises to the level of transformational—that is, when you are changing the very DNA of the organization or system—you need an architect. For example, the Oregon Business Council has been serving as the architect of Gov. John Kitzhaber's sweeping education reform program that aims to create an integrated pathway for lifelong learning, base progress on proficiency rather than seat time, and fund the whole system based on outcomes. OBC has been performing these "architectural" functions:

—Creating a vision of the program's "to-be" state.

—Protecting the vision from the natural tendency to morph back to the old ways.

—Helping to sequence transition to the new state and coordinate the work of the builders.

As in the construction of a building, program architects are "representatives" of the "owners" of a new system. They work in collaboration with builders, but their job is deliberately distinct. They help assure the owners that the new system is built as planned and that the work of the builders is coordinated.

For example, a federal judge issued a consent decree calling for dramatic reform of Illinois' child-protection system, making payments based on outcomes rather than service activities. The judge engaged a consulting firm to develop a new design and help guide implementation. The Department of Children and Family Services carried out the design so well that it eventually was a winner of an Innovations in American Government Award from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Architects perform the following functions:

Design: Even after the new system has been initially designed, there is an important continuing design role for the architect. Based on what is learned as the transformation proceeds, there will be a need for continuous tweaking of the building strategy and design, and, perhaps, for additional design work around specific elements of the system.

Education: It is one thing to articulate a new design in a report or presentation. It is yet another for employees to understand and embrace the new strategies and to fully integrate them into their day-to-day work. Expecting managers and rank-and-file workers to think and act in new ways just because they are written into a design is like expecting a marching band to transform itself into a jazz combo simply by reading a new piece of sheet music. No matter how outstanding their musicianship, the members of the marching band would need to hear and see a jazz combo to get a feel for the new approaches involved. They would need new tools—perhaps a guitar in place of the tuba. And their culture—embodied by their uniforms, marching techniques and leadership methods—would have to change dramatically.

Assessment and learning: A critical element of the building process is continuously assessing the construction work to make sure that it is delivering what is expected. Inspectors check the plumbing to make sure it is up to code; carpenters measure the dimensions of the foundation to make sure the roof trusses are properly proportioned. In transforming public-service delivery systems, we want to know the extent to which those systems are delivering the expected results. This is best done both quantitatively and qualitatively. The architect is constantly measuring, reporting data to the builders and the owner, and leading them in discussion about how to improve the process of transformation.

Alignment: Ideally, everything done by organizations going through transformation will be aligned with the "to-be" vision. However, people are naturally more oriented to the way they have always done things than to the new strategic direction. The architect is constantly challenging old assumptions and helping the organization align its work with the new vision.

Investing: I have written extensively in these columns about the importance of investing—time, money, political capital and leadership attention—in the process of change. The architect is the owner's principal advisor regarding how to best leverage such investments.

Without the architectural role, implementers will assume the old architecture and do what is familiar rather than that which is transformational. The architect helps everyone learn new conceptual frameworks, new approaches to delivering the service and using resources, and new habits and processes that are consistent with the vision. The architect helps the organization adopt a new culture that supports the transformed state.

Babak Armajani
Babak Armajani | Contributor |