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Government of the Future Part 1: Nurturing Innovation with Empathy

September 4, 2018  by  Government Performance Consortium
Category:  Government Performance Advisor Government Performance Consortium

Government of the Future Part 1: Nurturing Innovation with Empathy

Written by Larisa Benson and Chelsea Lei

At the official launch of the Government Performance Consortium (GPC) in April 2015, we called on Washington State local governments to “boldly go where no government has gone before...[and] to explore the next horizon of the modern government organization.” We envisioned a “vital and active ‘community of practice’ that exists to push the boundary of excellence and create a space where government leaders can explore, learn, and adapt today’s leading practices to create entirely new forms of government.”

At the completion of our first three years, we are proud of the fruitful exploration and rewarding learning journey that we have had together with our sponsors, partners and growing network of participating government innovators. As we envision the next phase of our initiative, we offer our reflections on the most important insights from our first three years. Part 1 of this series emphasizes the importance of support, empathy, and connection within organizations that are pushing the boundaries of government excellence. Part 2 explores reframing performance measurement to focus on organizational health. Part 3 makes the case why joy is essential for transforming the experience of working in government and achieving meaningful performance improvement.

In September 2016, Governing magazine ran the article, 25 Years Later: What Happened to ‘Reinventing Government’?, which asked why the new public management movement to improve performance and results of government had not delivered on its promise — Where are we stuck?

To learn more about where local governments in Washington were getting stuck, we conducted a series of interviews with front-line performance management professionals in dozens of Washington cities and counties and asked them the same question.

We learned that government organizations seeking to improve their performance are stuck the most in trying to actually do the things that they know are the expert-recommended leading practices. To quote one interviewee, “It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to improve government performance, it’s that we need support sustaining our focus on creating the change necessary to implement those leading practices.”

We heard that human dynamics often make sustained change difficult. Our interviews revealed that government innovators commonly experience resistance to their efforts. They become fatigued by the enormity of emotional waste endemic to the work of improving government.

Changemaking in government can be personally risky and costly for those who seek it. The few individuals who manage to achieve occasional breakthroughs must work hard to sustain their motivation and energy. Government bureaucracies can feel like an emotional wasteland. Even the most self-motivated and resilient individuals can lose their mojo against powerful resistance and prolonged inertia. In the absence of emotional lifelines in the forms of a supportive boss, a few like-minded colleagues, or a well-functioning team, few would choose to stay engaged and committed to giving their best or staying in government at all.

Many change makers manage to find one another in their own organizations but they do not have a reliable way of connecting with others like them outside of their organizations and across the entire local government system. These individuals value the deep connections that they have made with like-minded people in and outside of their own organizations as a critical source of energy and inspiration that help them sustain motivation and build capacity for change. However, they express great longing for more similar connections because their day-to-day reality remains a difficult and lonely uphill battle against silos, entrenchment, busy paperwork, distrust, and unrealized possibilities.

Meaningful and motivating connection is an undersupplied resource in our local government system. This helped us understand the value GPC was creating for the crowds we drew to our learning forums. When individuals who are often only one of a few people seeking to advance performance management within their own organizations became connected through GPC with a broad spectrum of like-minded individuals from other organizations, they tell us that it feels like finding a much-needed source of recharge and support. They appreciate knowing that there are others trying to do the same things as they are, who they can call up for perspective and advice in dealing with specific challenges.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the prevailing theory and practice for improving government over the last three decades made inaccurate assumptions about how humans work and learn in organizations. Those old paradigms underestimated the barriers to risk taking in the systems of checks and balances of our public institutions, which, to be fair, are there by design. The approach of embracing competition, measuring results, and insisting on accountability focused more heavily on the “left-brain” side of things (facts, logic, linear and causal thinking) than the “right-brain” side of things (feelings, imagination, holistic and relational thinking). Most performance innovation and management programs eventually fall flat because in practice they exacerbate cultures of risk aversion, fear, and distrust rather than serving as their antidote.

Going forward, we believe pushing the boundary of government excellence will require us to intentionally cultivate the emotional and social conditions that make it possible for people working in government to see and connect better with one another to create lasting positive change. Part 2 of this series will explore reframing performance measurement to focus on organizational health. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Government Performance Consortium

The Government Performance Consortium (GPC) convenes a vibrant network of civic thinkers and government practitioners across Washington State who are seeking to transform government from the inside out. Sponsored by MRSC, the State Auditor’s Office, and the KeyBank Professional Development Center, the GPC is co-led by Chelsea Lei and Larisa Benson.

The GPC offers a number or tools to help local government professionals interact with and learn from each other, including symposiums, events, and social media-based user groups.

The Government Performance Consortium writes for MRSC as a Government Performance Advisor. The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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