Category Archives: New Theory of Government

Citizen 2.0 or Client 2.0: The Street-Level Bureaucrat and Engagement 2.0

I started my government career as a street-level bureaucrat. In the summer of 1990, I was a paralegal intern for the Richmond, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The Department of Public Advocacy was a public defender’s office that covered four counties. My job was to interview the clients arrested and jailed. I would spend the morning in the jail interviewing clients and the afternoons writing up reports and doing legal research. Even for a small college town we were busy. The average caseload for our attorneys was between 200 to 250 cases a year. This experience led to my lifelong interest in street-level bureaucracies (SLB).

What makes an SLB different from other government agencies is that SLBs have immediate and direct contact with the public while most employees in other agencies deal almost exclusively with other government employees. SLBs are where policy is realized and implemented. The bulk of government employment is street-level bureaucrats such as police officers, teachers, social workers, and so on. As Michael Lipsky observed these government employees are charged with implementing and administering an ever-increasing set of policies and laws to an ever-growing population while facing shrinking budgets and resources. It may not be as bad as being consigned to Hades and tasked with eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, but there are days that it is close.

Street-level bureaucrats (SLB) have devised several methods to cope with their job as Jeffrey Prottas details in his book PeopleProcessing. The SLB picks the rules they will follow because to follow every rule that comes down would immobilize the agency. The SLB trains the citizens it meets into becoming good clients who make life easier for the SLB by being compliant and not making extra work. The most significant advantage that the SLB has is their superior knowledge of the rules and processes through which the SLB can punish or reward clients by withholding or supplying information. Even though the SLB must exercise as little discretion as possible in fulfilling the agency’s objectives, they carve out a good deal of autonomy.

The studies that established the characteristics of the street-level bureaucrats (SLB) and their practices were done in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. You will see an occasional paper on SLBs but nothing yet as to the impact of social networking technologies and how they affect the work and practices of the SLB. Social networking has a profound effect on SLBs because it will destroy the information advantage SLBs have while better performance measurement tools will reduce the autonomy of SLBs.

Customer at a counter.

Let’s discuss performance management tools first. When dashboard cameras were installed in police cars the police officer’s actions in the field were now more easily observed and monitored by their managers back at the station. Dashboard cameras were first resisted by police officers, but then they realized this was objective proof of why they had to deal with someone the way they did, and now most police officers welcome the scrutiny. Another related technology, GPS “tattlers” that record the routes taken by public service workers is not so well accepted but has helped cut down on abuse by some workers.

But where the most profound impact of social networking technologies is in erasing the information advantage the street-level bureaucrat has over clients. Just think of how car buying, medicine, law, and so many other areas have been influenced when consumers can go to a website and research the history of a car, the symptoms of a disease, or create their own will with freely-available information and the advice of a community with similar experiences. There is a substantial market out there for the person who writes a Dummies guide to the local welfare office or releases an app to help a citizen negotiate the process of applying for aid. I remember how empowered I felt when I first gained online access to my bank account and could see the same information the bank clerk saw as we spoke on the phone. The SLBs will lose a great deal of discretion when faced with a group of empowered clients who know the process and their rights even better than the SLB.

But these same social networking technologies can benefit the SLB. A large part of the work is screening the client, which could be done through an automated process, thus freeing the SLB to deal with the exceptional cases (you can see this already in some jurisdictions). Another benefit is for SLBs to form online communities where they can receive guidance from their peers at their desks and while working with clients. The performance management tools will provide an objective view of the burdens SLBs work under and may discourage management from stopping producing so many rules and erasing existing rules. We will not know the full impact of social technologies on the street-level bureaucracies for several years as the innovations diffuse through the agencies, but I am hopeful the effect will create a better future for both Client 2.0 and SLB 2.0.

References:

  • Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Prottas, J.M. (1979). People-processing: The street-level bureaucrat in public service bureaucracies. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Failure Is an Option: The Way To High-Performance Innovation

The three keys to innovation are to seek new ideas, test these ideas on a scale where failure is survivable, and continuously monitor these trials for feedback. The three keys come from Tim Hartford’s book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Hartford argues that the world is too complex for top-down “big project” innovation-based purely on expert judgment. The best path to innovation is to try a lot of ideas simultaneously (even if they contradict each other), build in robust feedback loops, and use the winning ideas to start a new round of trials.

Hartford’s three keys are not a new method of innovation; it is the oldest method of innovation around – evolution. Nature is continually creating variations of species and then selecting the species that best survive current conditions. Hartford applies that concept to organizations to see if a similar process works in determining what companies succeed and which close. The organizations that best survive a continually changing business environment combine incremental improvement along with the occasional long-shot idea to propel them into a better part of the business landscape ahead of their competitors

So, what does this have to do with government agencies? Hartford flatly states this innovation method will not work in government agencies because of several barriers. First, there is not enough time for political appointees to fully see these experiments before a new administration comes in office. Second, the process depends on many failures for innovation, but failure carries a high stigma in government. Third, it is difficult to demonstrate that a policy innovation had an effect due to the lack of robust feedback loops in government.

Think outside of the box sign.

Hartford’s opinion about government innovation is way overstated. There have been numerous government projects that have been extremely innovative: the Hoover Dam, rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, the Moon landings, the Space Shuttle, the Internet, and so on. When you examine how these agencies developed these projects, you do see these agencies tried many ideas and learned from these trials. NASA has a fantastic knowledge management culture, and DARPA’s successful record of innovation is built on the concept of trying many long-shot ideas at once.

What holds the government back from being even more innovative is the stigma of failure. Many agency cultures are too cautious because of the constant external scrutiny and the internal cultural practices of not sticking your neck out and just waiting out the latest change effort. Often, this caution is well-warranted. Many people depend on government agencies, and thus agencies cannot fail in their primary mission of delivering Social Security checks, defending the nation, or enforcing laws and regulations

But failure to innovate will also lead to mission failure for agencies. In the sixth chapter, Hartford describes how the 2008 economic meltdown was inevitable, given the tight coupling of economic institutions and the failure of the government to prevent financial organizations from becoming too entangled. He argues that in any complex system, accidents will typically occur and that often our failure-prevention efforts will only increase the probability of failure. What is needed are the twin strategies of placing buffers between parts of the system and setting up feedback loops to warn us of emerging failure events.

The government must continually innovate so it can continuously deliver on its mission. This means that the culture must change so the agencies accept the small failures that teach to avoid the massive failures that cripple the agency and harm the people it serves. Whether we call it “experimentation,” “pilot tests,” or some other euphemism, the better the government is at innovation, the better it can serve its citizens.

Failure Is An Option: The Way To High-Performance Innovation

The three keys to innovation are to seek new ideas, test these ideas on a scale where failure is survivable, and continuously monitor these trials for feedback. Failure is the path to success according to Tim Hartford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Hartford argues that the world is too complicated for top-down “big project” innovation-based purely on expert judgment. The best path to innovation is to try a lot of ideas simultaneously (even if they contradict each other), build in robust feedback loops, and use the winning ideas to start a new round of trials.

Learning from failure is not a new method of innovation; it is the oldest method of innovation around – evolution. Nature is continually creating variations of species and then selecting the species that best survive current conditions. Hartford applies that concept to organizations to see if a similar process works in determining what companies succeed and which close. The organizations that best survive a continually changing business environment combine incremental improvement along with the occasional long-shot idea to propel them into a better part of the business landscape ahead of their competitors

So, what does this have to do with government agencies? Hartford flatly states this innovation method will not work in government agencies because of several barriers. First, there is not enough time for political appointees to fully see these experiments through before a new administration comes in office. Second, the process depends on many failures for innovation, but failure carries a high stigma in government. Third, it is difficult to demonstrate that a policy innovation had an effect due to the lack of robust feedback loops in government.

Person holding a light bulb.

Hartford’s opinion about government innovation is overstated. There have been numerous government projects that have been extremely innovative: the Hoover Dam, rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, the Moon landings, the Space Shuttle, the Internet, and so on. When you examine how these agencies developed these projects you do see these agencies tried many ideas and learned from these trials. NASA has an amazing knowledge management culture, and DARPA’s successful record of innovation is built on the concept of trying many long-shot ideas at once.

What holds government back from being even more innovative is the stigma of failure. Many agency cultures are too cautious because of the constant external scrutiny and the internal cultural practices of not sticking your neck out and just waiting out the latest change effort. Often, this caution is well-warranted. Many people depend on government agencies, and thus agencies cannot fail in their primary mission of delivering Social Security checks, defending the nation, or enforcing laws and regulations

But failure to innovate will also lead to mission failure for agencies. In the sixth chapter, Hartford describes how the 2008 economic meltdown was inevitable, given the tight coupling of economic institutions and the failure of the government to prevent financial organizations from becoming too entangled. He argues that in any complex system, accidents will typically occur and that often our failure-prevention efforts will only increase the probability of failure. What is needed are the twin strategies of placing buffers between parts of the system and setting up feedback loops to warn us of emerging failure events.

Government must continually innovate so it can continuously deliver on its mission. Continuous innovation means that the culture must change so the agencies accept the small failures that teach to avoid the significant failures that cripple the agency and harm the people it serves. Whether we call it “experimentation,” “pilot tests,” or some other euphemism, the better the government is at innovation, the better it can serve its citizens.

DemX – Democratic experience

Recently, I have seen a lot of traffic on government email lists about customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX). There is a big push by the Office of Management and Budget concerning the citizen’s experience when dealing with government agencies. The Amazon shopping experience is the model for building government websites and providing citizen services.

When I started working in the federal government it was during the Reinventing Government movement lead by Vice-President Gore. The idea was create government services where “the plumbing was invisible” and services flowed automatically to citizens like they were shopping at a convenience store. Donald Kettl, a noted public administration, called this model, vending machine government.

The reinventing government was during the early days of the commercial Internet. Government websites were heavily influenced by how commercial websites were being built. Between 1993 and 2000, organizations were running millions of experiments to determine what made a site clickable and sticky (“keeping eyeballs on the site”). UX and CX grew up in this time.

Sign saying "Error 155: Democracy Not Found."

For the last 19 years, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter learned how to make users click, buy, and interact on their respective platforms. Governments have taken note and, at the same time governments are trying to regulate abusive CX and UX, government webmasters are using CX and UX to encourage citizen participation.

My concern is that government websites and interactions with the public is much more different and profound. Amazon and the rest of the commercial Internet exist only to sell me things. I am only a customer to the commercial Internet companies.

Democratic governments and their citizens have a deeper relationship. Citizens rely on governments to establish and promote democracy. In turn, governments rely on citizens to maintain democracy. This is why I am calling for DemX – Democratic Experience.

DemX is an evolving field and its basic tenets have yet to be established. In future postings, I will outline a theory of DemX that incorporates the best elements of CX and UX with ways of promoting the democratic relationship between governments and their citizens.