Learning from Government’s Past to Anticipate Its Future

A new book assesses the long arc of government reform.

At any given moment in time, governments in the United States and around the globe are carrying out key missions in service of their citizens, learning from and engaging with partners in other sectors, and acting as cost-effective stewards of public resources. The countless positive daily actions of government leaders go largely unrecognized amidst the focus on the highly visible challenges and problems faced by the public sector. However, stepping back to view progress over a span of decades reveals evidence of the sum total of this continuous evolution in government management and provides valuable perspective on the future of public service.

It is from this longer-term perspective about the performance and potential for government that the IBM Center for The Business of Government published Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders. For 20 years since 1998, the center has published research from more than 400 outside contributors—largely from academia, as well as nonprofits and journalists. Collectively, these contributors created a body of knowledge about best practices and lessons learned for government improvement. In addition, the center has developed a record of public sector challenges and opportunities through more than 500 interviews with government leaders on its radio show, the “Business of Government Hour.” In Government for the Future, we draw from this rich repository of content to reflect on major drivers of public sector progress over the past two decades. 

More importantly, reflection on this content provides a foundation to paint a vision of what government management may look like two decades hence. The book brings together viewpoints about the public sector in 2040. This vision of tomorrow’s government is framed through essays from experts that lay out a roadmap for how to maximize benefits and minimize risks, with potential innovations ranging from the workplace of the future to the advancement of space exploration.

Government for the Future focuses on six significant and enduring management trends of the past 20 years:

  1. Digital initiatives, including mobile computing and cloud computing
  2. Data initiatives, including big data, analytics, visualization, and dashboards
  3. Performance management initiatives, addressing the evolution of the supply of performance management information, and creating a demand for its use
  4. Social media-related initiatives, following the impact of social media that has been evident at all levels of government and has become a major agency communication tool
  5. Collaboration initiatives, such as public-private partnerships, cross-agency collaboration, and intergovernmental collaboration
  6. Risk management initiatives, including cyber, financial, and environmental risks

What does the implementation of management reform over the past 20 years teach current and future government leaders about how to proceed with management reforms in the future? Several common themes emerge from analysis of past management trends.

Management reform is not for the faint-hearted. It requires major commitment and staying power. In short, it’s not for the timid or those with short time horizons. It takes a well-executed implementation plan and top-level commitment.

Leaders should target key goals. Don’e overload the “system” with too much reform concurrently. Successful change leaders in government are selective about which management initiatives to launch.

Success requires time and effort, and a focus on implementation. While less successful initiatives launched over the last 20 years may have been sound conceptually, many suffered from poor execution.

Effective leadership is critical. While it has become a cliché, leadership from the top drives success in launching a management initiative.

Based on lessons learned from the past and research, the outline for a vision of what government might look like in 2040 comes into focus. We see two sets of developments evolving. First, technology will drive the redeployment of resources—people, dollars, and organizational structures. Second, as a consequence of these technology changes, the way people work and interact will change, and this will reframe how government works, including service delivery, citizen involvement, and different business models.

Government for the Future envisions three technology-based drivers of change for government in coming years:

Artificial and augmented intelligence will change the game. Advances in the use of AI will change roles, both within government and between government and citizens.

Data will drive progress. The increased availability and use of data will reframe how government managers use knowledge and insight to analyze performance, make decisions, and deliver services.

Government services will become platform-based. In this scenario, government will create the conditions for platforms that could be built in the private and nonprofit sectors collaborating with the public sector.

Moreover, the authors suggest that these technology drivers will have three broader impacts on the government of the future:

Government will be more citizen-driven. Government in 2040 will be more citizen focused, with people leveraging technology and data to interact with their government.

Government will become more network-based. The role of government workers evolving within a network-based environment as a result of technology will change, becoming flatter, more open, and more collaborative.

Volunteer participation with government will increase. Citizens will have more time to spend on volunteer activities in 2040—either as retirees or members of a 2040 workforce that benefits from technology.

For 20 years, the IBM Center has been privileged to contribute cutting-edge research that led to practical, actionable recommendations for government executives, and to have collaborated with like-minded organizations to improve government performance. With Government for the Future, we continue this collaboration among government, academia, nonprofits, and industry through the next 20 years. We hope that the perspectives provided throughout this book help leaders make this positive vision for government into tomorrow’s reality.