Managing Government in New York

President Obama on Monday (April 19) signed an executive order creating a Management Advisory Board, whose duties are to bring management ideas from the private sector to the federal government. In my humble opinion Washington is not the only city that needs advice on productivity, technology and customer service. I would encourage Gov. Paterson to replicate the model for New York.

One of the indications that the people putting this together understand the problem is that the idea came out of a meeting that included the founders of Angie’s List, Craigslist and Facebook — new media companies whose success in large part stems from their having a vision of how technology can benefit the public.

As an example of how a new approach could work, I’ll repeat my suggestion for getting the State Office of Parks and Recreation out of the red. By allowing would-be campers to bid on specific campsites, the state could generate sufficient fees to keep parks open that may now have to be closed. Under such a system the winning bid for a highly desired location in a very popular park for the week of July 4 might exceed $100 whereas the same site might go for a minimum rate of $10 the last week in September.

The problem is that we’re operating under a 20th century paradigm for the public sector. Under that model, new laws are passed every year increasingly restricting behaviors that citizens are allowed to engage in, while at the same time increasing the penalties for violating those behaviors and increasing the taxes that must be collected to support the entire system. The end result is a house of cards that is in the process of collapsing under its own weight while failing to solve core problems such as people unable to find gainful employment, decent housing or afford health insurance.

The old model requires the employment of an ever growing number people to monitor citizen behavior, and I’m not talking primarily about criminal behavior — I’m including everything from whether you can burn leaves in your backyard to how heavy a child must be before he can sit in the front seat to how poor you must be to receive food stamps. Every new social problem is an opportunity to pass a new set of laws and create another agency to police citizen behavior.

The resulting jobs created by our police the public model suffer from a lack of connectivity to the customer. There’s no feedback mechanism because the bureaucracy has little authority to change the rules even when they are absurd. There’s also no accountability other than in bureacratic terms.

Al of government has become the police officer who is judged by the number of traffic tickets he hands out — not by whether increasing that number has any connection to public safety.

21st century government needs to operate under a new model, the foundation of which is that government is “of the people, by the people and for the people” as opposed to for the Legislators, by the Commissioners and for the State Employees.

In the 21st century we need to reform the civil service system that defines people’s jobs in static terms, such that public employees are prevented from helping people or solving problems because to do so is not in their job description.

We need to allow managers to manage, which means giving them the ability to re-structure work units, move people from task to task, hire and fire, and which holds managers accountable. For agencies that provide non-essential services, that means operating at break-even; for agencies that provide direct services we need to measure results in terms of decreased dependency on government services!

When technology is available that can replace human labor, we need to allow managers to make that happen. When I started Empire Information Services in 1985, I encountered managers at state agencies that didn’t want to use our electronic delivery service because it would mean taking work away from their printing and mailing departments. They chose holding onto FTEs rather than increasing the productivity of their employees. They chose mind-numbing work flow over improving the results of their work.

The Tea Party movement reflects the public’s increasing alienation from government. Their taxes go up as even the most minimal contact with government becomes fraught with anxiety as the rules fail to reflect real world choices.

The Tea Party movement is ready to dispense with government even where it is needed and is able to do good. For that reason, the choice that elected officials, union leaders, management confidential and everyone else involved face today is between reforming government versus having the anti-government crowd take over. Holding onto the 20th century police behavior civil service model is inviting the wolf into grandma’s bedroom. The place to start is to obtain guidance from private sector innovators coupled with insights from public employees who are charged with doing the jobs and who in many cases know what’s wrong with what they’re being asked to do and can offer real solutions. The time to start is now.

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