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Making Government Work For All

Leaders must find new ways to deliver critical services across increasingly polarized communities.

Leaders at all levels of government face tremendous challenges today. One of the most significant is the growing divide among citizens on issues that include income, geography, education, race and culture, among others. The 2016 presidential election exposed a nation of voters who have very different perspectives on the path forward, and a rapidly evolving set of expectations of government.

Nonetheless, effective leaders must deliver key government services despite the political polarization, as well as fiscal imbalances and rising citizen expectations. And they must deliver services in a digitally connected, customer-centric environment.

Leaders of the public service workforce need to be increasingly adaptable, flexible, and resilient. They need to be comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and interdependence. Changes in governance suggest that leaders need different patterns of thinking, organization, and action.

To learn how government leaders are successfully bridging divides to better deliver services, the National Academy of Public Administration this fall convened four in-depth and interactive Governing Across the Divide forums at universities across the country.

Each forum had a distinct focus. At the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, we looked at the changing role of states in the intergovernmental system with a focus on health care and environmental policies. At the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, we examined innovations in local government service delivery, and at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Service, we considered the future of public service. At George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, we focused on prioritizing governance for resilient critical infrastructure lifelines such as transportation, energy, water, and communications.

Over the course of the four events, we structured panels of cross-sector government experts and discussions to expose the solutions and leadership skillsets driving the best and the brightest. The insights gleaned from the 15 panels, 73 speakers, and nearly 400 expert attendees uncovered four key practices employed by successful government leaders today:

An enterprisewide innovation capacity integrated into the strategic fabric of the organization. True innovative capacity spans an entire organization. It doesn’t necessarily include technology, but it must include a properly trained and equipped workforce, which is the foundation for innovative capacity. Start small, focus on sustainment, and live by a citizen-centric ethos.

The optimization and rethinking of the systematic interaction of the various stakeholders in today’s networked government. To develop and sustain cross-cutting solutions, leaders should focus on demonstrating incremental benefits and the impact of optimizing government’s many interaction points.

The prioritization of factual, useful information in execution and communication. The strategic, targeted long-term dispersion of information to citizens about government programs and processes is a vital aspect of success. As data becomes increasingly prevalent and useful, government leaders should continue to look for ways to better communicate that information and highlight government impact.

An emphasis on patient and persistent engagement of constituents, citizens, and the workforce. The initiative to engage is the vital first step for leaders. It must be coupled with long-term commitment to the goal and it must seek and reward collaboration. Coalition-building does not happen overnight. Leaders must find opportunities to initiate engagement that empowers citizens to take responsibility for their outcomes and their personal path for reaching those outcomes.

These practices identify the problem-solving mindset of our most successful government leaders, but all agreed that government alone cannot solve the problems of the future. Networked, collaborative, and co-produced solutions across the public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors will be needed to ensure equitable and effective delivery of government services. These co-produced solutions require flexibility to negotiate and execute, which is why many of the most innovative solutions are often first developed on the local level in cities and states. As former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said in Austin, “Cities are places where things get done.”

Change begins with risk-taking leaders who engage with citizens and risk-taking citizens who engage with their states and communities. Leaders who are successfully advancing innovative policies take the time to deliberately engage citizens face to face over long periods of time to communicate complicated policy implications and build trust and legitimacy through transparency. In her keynote address at Syracuse, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman noted, “Governance is leadership.” How very true that is.

We set out in our Governing Across the Divide series to bring together people from disparate perspectives and backgrounds, with different experiences and policy expertise, to talk about the complex governance challenges facing our country. We concluded the series with renewed hope that our government leaders are committed to improving quality of life for those they serve through the innovative use of every tool available to them.

However, we must continually identify new gaps in governance, look across our government silos and find new and innovative solutions. We must look neighborhood by neighborhood, and develop solutions that consider the unique characteristics of those neighborhoods. We must measure results better, and then share those results transparently and consistently with our constituents to build their confidence and earn their trust. And, we must share the good news about government successes to motivate the next generation of public servants.

We have just released a white paper detailing the discussions and insights gained from these Governing Across The Divide conversations, and the Academy looks forward to continuing these conversations in 2018, as we seek to “make government work, and work for all.”

Terry Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Image via Dean Conway/Shutterstock.com.

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