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Government Can’t Be Agile? Don’t Tell Pennsylvania’s Bridge-Fixers.

The state brought together a remarkable coalition and waived red tape to get traffic on I-95 moving again just 12 days after a bridge collapsed. That kind of focus on results, not procedures, can help restore trust in government.

Philadelphia sports mascot crossing temporary I-95 bridge
Mayor Jim Kenney watches as a fire truck carries Philadelphia sports mascots Franklin the Dog, Phang, the Phillie Phanatic, Gritty and Swoop across the temporary fix that reopened I-95 to traffic 12 days after a bridge was destroyed in a tanker fire.
(Alejandro A. Alavarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
When a tanker truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline exploded underneath an Interstate 95 overpass in Philadelphia in June, the blaze literally melted some of the bridge’s steel, collapsing the structure and shutting down traffic on one of the nation’s busiest highways. State officials initially predicted that the roadway would be closed for five months, raising the prospect of epic backups on local streets and long detours for commercial traffic.

But to everyone’s relief, the highway was back open in just 12 days, with the mascots of Philadelphia’s sports teams riding a fire engine across a temporary span to celebrate. How was this accomplished? And what lessons can public officials learn from the rebuilding?

Key to the state’s effort was quickly assembling a remarkable coalition. Gov. Josh Shapiro waived red tape for permits and procurement. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shifted equipment from a nearby project to begin demolition of the ruined bridge. The federal Department of Transportation released $3 million to get the repairs started, which bought time until full funding was approved. Engineers decided not to rebuild the bridge from scratch, opting instead to use a glass aggregate filler to build up the foundation underlying the temporary bridge, reopening the highway to traffic while allowing permanent repairs to proceed. Trade unions worked around the clock and, when rain threatened to delay the final stages, NASCAR loaned a pavement jet dryer from its nearby Pocono racetrack.

“This is what we can do when governments at all levels come together to get the job done,” Shapiro said. It was an agile response — one that was effective, collaborative and swift. There’s no reason it can’t be more common.

Organizations of all types, public and private, need to move quickly to identify and learn from such agile approaches. They can organize around results, not fiefdoms, and be more agile in delivering services. This is especially important as big disrupters will continue to pose greater challenges.

There’s no better example of a big disrupter than the pandemic. The need to respond to COVID-19 upended countless old ways of working. Overwhelmed governments broke with orthodoxies in many ways, such as with “as-needed” resourcing, bringing in the services and supplies they needed with unprecedented speed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ ride-share initiative, for example, worked with ride-share companies to deliver two-week supplies of food to isolated, high-risk veterans. New partnerships between the federal government and drug manufacturers brought the COVID-19 vaccine to patients’ arms in record time.

That disruption transformed a vast range of relationships. When COVID-19 created sudden scarcity, governments, citizens, the scientific community and the private sector came together in pop-up ecosystems to develop quick solutions. New markets emerged to supplement failures in existing supply chains. Taiwan’s government entered into an agreement with private-sector and civil organizations to rapidly ramp up mask production, providing government investment in exchange for free masks.

In short, governments need bridge-builders who can create and catalyze new partnerships. Going forward, that may necessitate a cultural shift, one that recognizes that success requires the ability to quickly anticipate and adapt to change.
The temporary I-95 bridge
The temporary I-95 roadway that bridges the collapsed section of the highway in Philadelphia accommodates six lanes of traffic while permanent reconstruction of the bridge proceeds. (Pennsylania Department of Transportation)
Five principles can help government leaders institutionalize agility into their operations:

Break down barriers to improve outcomes. When it came to rebuilding the I-95 bridge, Shapiro wrote, “we fast-tracked the permitting process to avoid delays while maintaining safety standards — relying on our experience with past permitting processes as well as the expertise of engineers and other professionals.” The governor waived some bureaucratic requirements completely.

Develop a culture of agile leadership. Bridge-builders adapt their approaches as needed, focusing on results. Rather than hoard authority, good leaders delegate responsibility. “No one had to check with headquarters to keep the project moving,” said Shapiro. “The construction site was headquarters.” The state moved its decision-makers to the front lines.

Expand and open organizational functionality. Government leaders need to look beyond their organizations’ walls, forging ties with partners in different organizations to serve the needs of their mission. The ability to build ecosystems that continuously seek solutions, both internally and externally, tops government leaders’ emerging essential competency. “At every step of the I-95 project,” Shapiro wrote, “local, state and federal officials coordinated closely with each other, and the collaborative approach extended to our private contractors and organized labor.”

Shift the mindset from compliance to collaboration. Bridge-builders provide the freedom to design solutions without insisting on rigid practices. Instead of dictating what services providers must deliver, procurement processes can ask providers to propose services that best serve the outcomes they hope to achieve. There’s no question that a collaborative approach unearths creative solutions.

Practice problem-based procurement. Contracts should identify problems and seek solutions rather than establish rigid requirements focused on process. Pennsylvania moved from traditional cut-and-paste contract renewals to results-driven contracting focused on performance improvement.

Disaster response organizes action around an immediate need. Urgency dissolves the obstacles of bureaucracy that slow down normal government processes. Agile governments strive to maintain a first responder's flexible, prompt mission focus in everything they do, not just in emergencies. Indeed, the most important lesson that Pennsylvania learned from its remarkable accomplishment in reopening I-95 so quickly was that the strategies developed to cope with that emergency offered a plan for doing everything better.

Swift and effective results can help to begin restoring trust in government. The transition to this agile government isn’t simple. The first steps, however, are simple and straightforward, by shifting standard operating procedures from following procedures to prioritizing results. From there, bridges will be built, silos will topple and collaborations will ensue. Resources will flow to the investments the public needs, and markets will emerge to innovate solutions. As Shapiro put it, “When we come together, when we’re determined, we can do big things.”

William Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, discusses the “bridgebuilder” approach to government leadership with e.Republic's Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler and Deputy Chief of Innovation Joe Morris. (Governing is a division of e.Republic LLC)

William D. Eggers and Donald F. Kettl are the authors of the new book Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of <i><a href=";qid=&amp;sr=">Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems</a>.</i>
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