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Reinventing “Reinventing Government” for the Digital Twin Age of Public Administration

By Bill Brantley
December 21, 2018

I started my government career as a paralegal in the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet on September 2, 1991. Thanks to an influential professor in college, I had become immersed in better management authors such as Peter Drucker and Tom Peters. During the spring and summer of 1991, I worked the third shift at a local convenience store while waiting to become hired in the Kentucky state government. It was during these long hours I would read the latest works on improving organizational management.

In 1992, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler published “Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector.” Having enjoyed Mr. Osborne’s earlier book profiling innovative state governments, I eagerly consumed “Reinventing Government”and tried to apply its lessons to my work at the Cabinet. A junior government paralegal talking about performance measures in a law office was strange but I managed to create some effective processes and methods using the newly acquired desktop PCs linked together on a local area network.

Fast forward to six years later, and I was working on several National Performance Review projects as a Presidential Management Fellow at the General Services Administration. These were exciting times in government, and I was proud to be part of the performance revolution. However, as John Buntin in a recent article in Governing magazine asks, what happened to reinventing government in the last twenty-five years?

Mixed Results

Mr. Buntin’s article is a good summary of the reinventing government efforts in the federal, state, and local governments. He recounts the successes and failures of the many reinvention projects to draw two important conclusions. The first conclusion is that even if a reinventing government project succeeds, it is hard to sustain. The second conclusion is that many reinventing government projects were initiated by the executive branches and rarely considered the legislative branches’ role in sustaining the project. As executive leadership and legislatures changed, the reinventing government projects lost their champions and key people to sustain the projects.

However, I believe that Mr. Buntin’s most important finding was how the emphasis on increasing performance results backfired on reinventing government. Rather than giving government managers the courage to be experimental and take risks, managers treated the new performance metrics as another compliance exercise. As Beth Blauer, head of the Maryland StateStat system, explains in the article, the focusing on the budget “automatically chilled innovative thinking.” Agencies became “defensive” and concentrated on “justifying past performance” rather than “solving hard problems.”

Going Lean

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The performance management director for the Washington state government, Wendy Korthuis-Smith, argues for the bottom-up approach to performance management rather than the top-down reinventing government approach. Under the new framework, “Results Washington,” five goal councils are comprised of 12 to 15 state agency directors. “The councils meet monthly to review data, discuss strategies, and collaborate on solutions,” as recounted in Mr. Buntin’s article. The Results Washington is an example of the lean approach in which the agencies partner with customers to help build and test solutions to the meet the performance management challenges. Many other governments are experimenting with lean and design thinking to improve their performance management abilities and to deliver government services better.

The Resurgence of Reinventing Government?

Is it possible that reinventing government was too early? When I started my government career in 1991, we still had a typing pool of secretaries that would use the early word-processing software to turn our dictation cassettes into legal documents. In my work at the General Services Administration, I conducted one of the first surveys of how state and local governments were using the newly-commercialized World-Wide-Web to interact with their citizens. Collecting the information for useful feedback to help measure performance was admittedly more difficult back in the early 90s.

However, in the last twenty-five years, the ability to track performance data has become more effective and available. Often, frighteningly too effective and available. We are now entering an age where cognitive automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things can help us build “digital twins” of government agencies. Bernard Marr of Forbes magazine defines a digital twin as “a virtual model of a process, product or service. This pairing of the virtual and physical worlds allows analysis of data and monitoring of systems to head off problems before they even occur, prevent downtime, develop new opportunities and even plan for the future by using simulations.”

Could using a lean and design thinking approach coupled with digital twin technologies, help governments reinvent themselves in a meaningful and sustainable way throughout changes in government leadership while responding to citizen’s needs? It may be time to rethink how we reinvent government in this century.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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