The Bipartisan Forces that Could Stifle Government Innovation

Both Democrats and Republicans say they recognize the need for change, but their party platforms suggest otherwise.

In his excellent book, Delivering on Digital (Rosetta Books, 2016), William Eggers presents a compelling case for the many ways in which the government’s ability—and willingness—to embrace the digital age that dominates the broader economy can dramatically improve government service and efficiencies. Eggers’ work, and other related analyses, are of particular importance given the enormous role a smart digital strategy can play in solving some of our most pressing problems, not the least of which are ongoing resource limitations, which, regardless of the outcome of the November elections, will continue for the foreseeable future. Indeed, there is no doubt that technology today holds the potential for the kinds of major process, management and delivery changes that could play an outsized role in reducing the costs of government operations while also driving meaningful and much needed performance improvements.

This is a message that has resonated across scores of state and local governments and, as Eggers points out, in some unexpected nations, such as Estonia. But, while progress is being made, it remains a relatively nascent movement in the federal government.

It is reasonable to expect this message to be reinforced through the presidential elections. In fact, Hillary Clinton, in a recent speech, presented her vision for innovation across the economy and in government. In so doing, she fully embraced the possibilities presented by the digital era and identified steps that need to be taken to make her vision a reality (full disclosure: I am one of many involved in developing recommendations for her potential management agenda).

While Donald Trump has yet to say much on the topic, history suggests that a Trump Administration will also pursue an innovation agenda. After all, this has traditionally been a mostly non-partisan issue. The maturation of the government’s approach to technology and modernization has been relatively consistent (if too slow) over the last four administrations, and there is every reason to believe this pattern will continue.

That said, it is notable that both party platforms strongly endorse other policies that are fundamentally contrary to the notion of innovation and change. While one can argue that the platforms are more window-dressing than anything else, they are not unimportant. They do tend to reflect where the strongest passions lie within each party and are helpful roadmaps to existing opportunities and obstacles.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the ways in which the platforms deal with federal employees and the role of government. Among other things, the Republican platform focuses on tearing down the civil service system (and civil servants themselves), a minor statement of support for federal employees notwithstanding. Meanwhile, key parts of the Democratic platform read like a protectionist doctrine under which virtually all aspects of the status quo would remain effectively untouched, be it the civil service system itself or ways in which traditional service delivery might be improved (i.e., no reductions in VA facilities or Social Security centers, regardless—so it seems—of the benefits to citizens that might result).

In other words, whatever else they may say about technology and innovation, both parties, through their platforms, have put down strongly-worded markers that could impede the kind of creative and flexible thinking necessary for innovation to thrive.

In his book, Eggers sets out five core tenets that must guide government management going forward: transparency; user-centered design; constant user engagement; simplicity; and agility. None exist in a vacuum; all are necessary. But none are today the norm in government. Moreover, the revolution in services that digital technologies can facilitate requires a unity of purpose and commitment that, as the platforms suggest, does not exist.

If real progress is to be made, the next administration and the congressional leadership will need to overcome the tribalism and absolutism of their own party platforms. They will need to focus on, enable and prepare for changing work structures and workforce capabilities and competencies, to include the way services are delivered and missions are achieved. Only then, will government be able to capitalize on the digital technologies that have revolutionized service in the private sector and deliver the caliber of government services that citizens deserve.