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What gov't can learn from private industry

What are real lessons that Washington can learn from private industry? Here're a few observations, based on nineteen years of corporate life, followed by fourteen with a successful Internet company I founded. Most of those years were doing customer service, which is how I make a living now.

First, getting to the point, here's the gist, followed by brief explanation.

– Put your customers first, for real, not just advertising and lip service.
– Your rank-and-file employees already know how to run things much better; give them the technology to do so, then follow through, with serious commitment from the highest levels.

– Track customer service issues using a problem "ticketing" system.
– innovation rarely comes from big organizations; consider small skunkworks.
– Mistakes will be made, and some efforts will failure. Accept that as normal.

Hey, that's the gist of everything here; you can stop reading unless you want backup info.

Overall, this is "business process re-engineering", or BPR. Talking about it was big in the late eighties, but management follow through, not so much.

Prior to joining IBM, I read what its founder, Tom Watson, had to say. That included something to the effect that if you put customers first, and honestly followed through with good customer service, you'd succeed. In the eighties I was with IBM when the company lost its way and lost lots of business. However, under good leadership, IBM found its way again and is now successful.

Late eighties, I was trained in process re-engineering, but far as I could tell, little or none was done. However, I remembered, and in the first years of my own venture, I had to practice it. Whenever some process started taking too much of my time, I simplified it, wrote some software to help me with it, and that really worked.

The gist of this is to figure out how you're really doing things, and find ways to do it better. In many cases, you find that you're doing things which used to make sense, but no longer do. Often you find shortcuts for situations that are very common.

However, in any large organization, the simple reality is that the people doing the real work know what's going on, and how to do better. In most situations, workers feel no one is listening, and/or no one in management will do anything.

The culture and attitude of the Internet changes all that. The deal is that people see that the Net is about working together for mutual benefit. We see that simple software can be used as a platform where we can work together in a very visible way.

The deal is that once an idea is proposed, other people see it and can improve upon it. This creates a surge of expectation that management will take a look and do something about it, if only because the discussion is so visible. The management alternative, to ignore all that feedback, is to progressively lose all moral legitimacy, and to fail. You need support from management to make this work, the boss needs to champion this approach and make it so.

Remember also that managment needs to visit rank-and-file people, talk to them directly, without local showboating or other filtering.

Turns out government workers have been quietly taking this approach for a few years, with little attention from the press; it's not dramatic enough to make the news.

For the most mundane of needs, local government has built 311 programs, which help get a pothole fixed or the garbage pick ed up. They're an emerging success in cities including New York and San Francisco.

This reflects what effective companies do, they using problem ticketing systems, where customers or employees can describe problems. That way, they can get problems fixed, tracking progress. In a sense, 311 systems are pretty much ticketing systems, simple, effective, if taken seriously.

City governments are going beyond that, advancing the DC city "apps for democracy" model, a kind of private/public partnership where city workers work with citizens to get you the kind of data you need to get through the day. For example, in SF I use a phone app to see when the next bus or subway is coming.

On the state level, a lot of exemplary customer service is being provided by Utah.gov, Virtual Alabama, and Georgia. The state of Georgia is doing remarkable work, changing their culture of customer service. The deal is that you can get what you need to get done, in the way that works for you, in person, on the phone or via the Net.

This way of doing things has gotten a lot of Federal workers excited, in large part via the Federal Web Managers Council. I'm most impressed by the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative, which basically unleashes customer service people throughout the VA. People were asked for suggestions to better serve their customers, veterans. VA workers came through, and now management's working on making suggestions into reality.

(If you've noticed I'm heavily committed to this and related efforts, here's the deal.  If a guy is willing to take a bullet for me, I need to stand up. Far as I'm concerned, supporting the troops should be more than mere words.)

Finally, from Silicon Valley, two observations:

  • There's something about large organizations that make it really hard for them to innovate. Try using small "skunkworks" of committed workers, and given them all the creative freedom possible.
  • It's okay to make mistakes, and okay to fail, even expected. You learn from your mistake and try again. (I hear in government it's the opposite.)

You might reflect that a lot of this is everyday common sense, and you'd be right. Problem is that not much of it happens, since it involves management taking their rank-and-file seriously, and supporting them.

This requires a big culture change in government at all levels. It requires lots more flexibility from their lawyers and from Congress. It also requires that the press give people a break, and focus on the successful rebuilding of government, from the bottom up and from the inside.

It's inevitable now; Internet tools bring people together, and it's working.

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6 Responses to What gov't can learn from private industry

Indoorcamping says:

Make it happen, Craig, and anyone else in public service. You know, if you've ever worked in the public sector, that this is true. You also know it's a Sysiphusian task but so is anything worth doing.

twodogkd says:

Didn't read the backup, YET, but you differ from many in industry whose primary concern is profit, and they don't look to the long-term quality for customers, or the impacts of their industry on mother earth or the seventh generation to come.
Greed and self interest seems paramount with those others.
Big companies get together, form groups, and use their combined power, to have unfair advantage/power over decisions made by local City Councils. One example is that at our City Council, they used their power and influence to have an agenda items passed that shift their developement and power costs to local residents. They had the advantage of inside information and special treatment.
At our 1/12/2010 City Council meeting the Council passed an agenda item with a 90 plus page backup raising fees/charges of all types, YET LOWERED THE BUILDING FEES/CHARGES and did not notify 99 percent of the general public about these changes, refused to delay this item so that fair notice could be made, and tried to make it appear that the public had been notified due to their advance notice to business interests (in my mind this was to hammer out how much of their development costs would be shifted to the citizens backs). The backup to the increased fees and charges in the agenda item was only made available the the public at large ONLINE on Friday 1/8/2010, but if they DON't KNOW ABOUT IT THEY CANNOT LOOK AT IT AND CANNOT ATTEND THE COUNCIL MEETING TO COMMENT ON IT. So it was passed on 1/12/2010, with no broad public notice. But of course the powerful local Chamber of Commerce was briefed in advance TWICE as was a building group.
A minor exception was that a Councilmember knew of the increases that would impact his ball groups and discussed those in advance, and the Park head said he called a few groups.
But the bottom line is that 99 percent of Riverside citizens or more WERE NOT NOTIFIED about a broad reaching change that likely would impact every citizens sooner or later. Just the increase in dog/cat fees alone may impact many. But there was no notice to the tens or hundreds of thousands of pet owners of those changes. And there were many other categories of changes for which people were not notified.
One Council member, who I spoke to in advance about this matter, requested one type of charge be waived for those appealing any zoning change. If a zoning change applicant was challenged by non applicants that Councilman said those people should not have to pay to appeal. Yet he was stonewalled by the balance of the Council who did not second his motion, so in effect at least five of those Council members AGAIN backed developers over residents. What it will mean is citizens may not be able to afford to appeal developers applications, so will have no rights in our community
The power of companies/political donations speak loudly, and as a result, in my opinion, the Council votes in to favor developers interest and ignore the best interests of citizens who the Council said they would look out for when elected.
The balance of power is way off in America and in particular in communities everywhere. If that balance is not restored, America will fall apart.
As they say in France, let them eat cake. At least that seems the attitude of developers/big business here.
But you Craig have the best interest of people at heart, you listen. You let folks bring varying ideas and come to decisions on matters at hand.
But how do we restore integrity or those qualities that men/women need to make fair decisions, and to treat others like they would want to be treated?
How do we make them know their actions are destroying local communities, and let them see that their actions are also leading to the destruction of mother earth/ air/ environment, which in turn leaves nowhere for future generations to live.
How do we teach them that success is not a pile of money, mansions, and stuff.
Change is needed in America and it is a change of consciousness.

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