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Is government culture stifling customer experience innovation?

Risk aversion among government managers is blocking needed improvements to key programs, according to a recent white paper.

Innovating feels too risky for the administrators of public benefit programs, and that’s holding back progress on customer experience efforts meant to make it less arduous to get government benefits, according to a recent white paper from the National Academy of Public Administration and the Center for Accountability, Modernization and Innovation.

Currently, means-tested programs that are designed at the federal level and administered at the state and local levels — such as food assistance programs and Medicaid — are burdensome, both for people looking to get benefits and government workers, the paper says.

“For the most part,” Nancy Augustine, project director at the Academy, said at a June 15 panel discussion about the paper. “People have to prove again and again and again, a whole bunch of different ways, that they are poor.”

In addition to changing how data is used in government and how enrollment processes work, the study focused on how the government can incentivize innovation. 

“It’s possible to innovate,” said Augustine. “But getting a waiver or a pilot can be a long and arduous process. And… if [states] take this chance on a waiver or a pilot, they don’t know that they’re going to be able to stay compliant [with government rules and guidance]. So this is a big risk for them.”

Competing and confusing program rules and guidance are responsible for some of that risk, according to the paper, which calls for clearer rules and streamlined approval processes for waivers and pilots. But Congress needs to get involved to provide impetus to change government culture, experts said.

"While the administration needs to be the champion, Congress needs to lead,” Stan Soloway, Academy fellow, chairman of the board for CAMI and president and CEO of consulting company Celero Strategies LLC, told Nextgov/FCW via email. “Real change will require leadership that decides it's enough of a priority that it's worth the energy to build a partnership with the Hill to realize it.”

“Some of the turf battles that today inhibit real innovation and a willingness to challenge and break down arcane business practices and systems are rooted in congressional interest, including but not limited to appropriators and authorizers,” Soloway said.

The paper also suggested focusing compliance on “well-defined outcome measures” instead of how well government employees follow administrative processes.

“There is a focus at the government level for states and local governments to, rightly so, focus on compliance with the rules and to focus on their thin slice of their role in the whole system,” said Augustine. “What if we got to a point where states and counties were held accountable for outcomes? What if they were given the freedom to focus on clients’ outcomes?”

The paper also pushes a focus on system-level changes rather than front-end improvements, an approach made difficult by fragmented responsibilities, authorities and funding, leaving little incentive for sweeping change.

“Modernizing and opening the door to real innovation and new strategic models would enhance the effectiveness of benefit delivery to the millions of people who rely on these programs for critical assistance,” the report states. “The path to modernization can begin when a political consensus for change, or a new crisis, emerges.”