“We Have Met the Enemy… and He is us”

This famous quotation originated in the 70’s in a political comic strip by Walt Kelly and was directed at environmental issues.  I was reminded of this quotation while reading a new book by Peter H. Schuck, titled Why Government Fails So Often and How It Can Do Better.  Shuck explains in the book that most Americans today have lost confidence in our government, and do not believe it delivers on its promises.  What’s more, he states that Americans’ opinion of our government is only getting worse.  I enjoyed the book’s dedication to “…the federal officials—civil servant and political appointees alike—who struggle against great odds to make our government work”.

Schuck specifically speaks to the reasons many government policies fail, which include initial flawed theories or designs, or even unforeseen consequences.  Other reasons include erratic policy enforcement and muddled implementations.  The remedies Schuck offers up for consideration range from ways to reduce potential moral dangers to increasing competitiveness inside our government structures, as well as the very interesting recommendation for government to experiment with policies –before adopting them in final form. 

Experimentation is very common in the private sector and one method used to develop lessons learned and best practices.  Yet in government, experimentation appears to be cost and/or time prohibitive.  Implementing policies, especially across multiple agencies, is a very complex exercise and experimentation could help to identify areas that can be simplified.  Schuck states, “In addition to knowing where to simplify, we need to know how to simplify”.  More experimentation in government should also help reduce the potential of fraud, waste, and abuse of policies when implemented.

"In addition to knowing where to simplify, we need to know how to simplify"

But government organizations tend to be their own worst enemy in policy implementation.  From the creation of manual processes, misalignment between business and IT, siloed, legacy systems, and traditional development methodologies, it’s not difficult to see how muddled policy implementations can lead to erratic policy enforcement, or worse, as my recent eBook explains.  Especially in our digital world, it becomes increasingly difficult for government agencies to service constituents the same way they have grown accustomed to from private sector companies, such as Amazon.

In order to increase the success of policy implementation, government agencies should first acknowledge the problems that are inherent in their infrastructure and then look for new ways to adapt.  Identifying and focusing on quick wins is one way that has many advantages:

  • Government agencies will be able to experiment with policy implementation, including bringing in new development methods, such as agile.
  • Small phases will be able to quickly ensure success or failure.  If there is an aspect of the policy implementation that is running off course, it’s much simpler to adjust in phases.
  • Experimentation is possible in a small, phased approach.  Modeling the process and performing what-if analyses will help to ensure the optimization of the policy implementation.
  • Most importantly, focusing on quick wins through phases builds confidence in the approach and the results, ensuring the appropriate buy-in from both the program areas as well as IT.

These quick wins should then be built into the long-term strategy, experimenting and optimizing along the way.  Ultimately, agencies should work toward a specific mission in a cohesive and collaborative fashion, using experimentation to help determine the best process for constituents.

Schuck explains that all policies succeed in some respects and fail in others.  It’s simply a matter of degree.  “Government policies emerge from decision processes, and the performance of those policies depends on the kinds of processes that produced them and how well those processes worked”.  To help explain my point, I’ll end with another famous Walt Kelly quotation: “It is not good enough for things to be planned - they still have to be done; for the intention to become a reality, energy has to be launched into operation”.