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Why Government Agencies Need Two Operating Systems to Innovate and Work Effectively

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
February 16, 2024

The public has new expectations from government services as we move forward in the 21st century. People want their interactions with government services to be as easy and fast as buying from Amazon.com. This changing expectation comes from the technological developments that began with the personal computer boom in the 1980s, continued with the rapid growth of DotCom businesses in the 1990s, and the AI revolution in the 2020s. Citizens are used to quick, personalized services. Despite serious efforts to innovate, many government services are still not very accessible or efficient.

The issue at hand extends beyond a mere deficiency in innovation. Various agencies, including the General Services Administration, Office of Personnel Management and Department of Health and Human Services, are at the forefront of innovation, with dedicated labs and initiatives like 18F driving a surge in creative solutions to refine government operations. The pivotal challenge often lies in effectively embedding these innovative ideas within the agency’s established processes—a task complicated by the divergent nature of the “innovation operating system” versus the “execution operating system.”

Embedding Startup Dynamism Within Established Hierarchies

John Kotter introduced the concept of dual operating systems in his 2014 book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Kotter illuminates the evolutionary path of organizations from being agile, flat networks that foster uninhibited communication and innovation to becoming hierarchical structures designed to deliver services and products efficiently. To bridge the gap between innovation and execution, Kotter advocates creating a startup-like ecosystem within the traditional hierarchical framework. This innovative approach allows employees to alternate roles in the dynamic, innovative network and their conventional positions within the hierarchical system, ensuring a fluid transition of new ideas into standardized business operations.

Balancing Innovation with Organizational Performance

Kotter first developed the model of dual operating systems, but Govindarajan and Trimble had a similar idea before him. In their works, especially The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge (2010, they showed how to use an Innovation Team to test new ideas and integrate them into the organization’s Performance Engine. This strategic approach focuses on smoothly transferring innovations into the main operational structure, reducing interference in service delivery.

Towards a Cohesive and Efficient Performance Engine

The goal is to improve the Performance Engine without falling into the trap of waste or disorder, as Cohen, March and Olsen (1972) suggested in their concept of the “garbage can model.” This model depicts a wasteful mix of clashing business processes that arise when new processes are added without removing old ones. Government agencies can avoid this situation by using lean startup approaches, emphasizing customer-focused designs, ensuring all processes support the agency’s mission and applying strong performance measures to ensure constant improvement.

Dual Operating Systems: A Catalyst for Government Innovation

In an era where the demand for continuous innovation intersects with the reality of constrained resources and tighter budgets, government agencies must embrace the concept of dual operating systems. By adopting dual operating systems, agencies can significantly enhance their operational efficiency and elevate the quality of service delivery to meet the public’s high expectations.

The dual operating system model provides a structured yet flexible framework that encourages creative problem-solving and rapid innovation within a safe, experimental environment akin to a startup while maintaining the stability and reliability of traditional hierarchical structures. This duality ensures that innovative ideas are not only generated but are also pragmatically evaluated and integrated into existing processes without disrupting the core services that citizens rely on. Furthermore, this approach allows for leveraging advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), to automate routine tasks, improve decision-making processes and offer personalized services to the public, significantly improving user experience and satisfaction.

AI-Driven Government Operations

  • AI for Enhanced Public Safety: Utilizing AI in predictive analytics, like the Chicago Police Department’s strategic deployment to anticipate crime hotspots, enables proactive law enforcement and community safety measures.
  • AI-Powered Customer Service Solutions: The integration of AI chatbots by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for handling routine inquiries has revolutionized customer service, making it more accessible and efficient.
  • Public Health and AI: Leveraging AI algorithms for analyzing disease outbreak patterns has significantly empowered health departments to improve response strategies and public health interventions.
  • Streamlining Tax Processing with AI: The Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) adoption of AI for tax returns exemplifies how technology can enhance accuracy and reduce processing times, benefiting taxpayers.

In addition, AI is being used in environmental monitoring to anticipate the effects of climate change and in urban planning to improve traffic flow and public transport systems. These improvements indicate the possibility of dual operating systems, enhanced by AI, changing government agencies into more agile, effective and citizen-focused entities. Therefore, adopting dual operating systems supported by technological innovations like AI is essential for government agencies to satisfy modern expectations and provide better services.

Author: Dr. Bill Brantley is the President and Chief Learning Officer for BAS2A – an instructional design consultancy for state and local governments. He also teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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