How to Address Government Crises Today and Tomorrow? Lean First, Then Automate

How to Address Government Crises Today and Tomorrow? Lean First, Then Automate

Commentary by Kate McGovern, Senior Consultant, Daniel Penn Associates

As the government adjusts to a new normal during the COVID-19 crisis, federal and state funds are becoming available to support capacity, efficiency, and innovation. However, without a ‘lean first’ planning approach, hasty investments in new IT and automation can amplify process waste instead of reducing it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required extraordinary adaptation by state and local governments. The sudden transformations it required have tested even the most robust information technology (IT) systems. Legacy technology in the unemployment compensation system buckled under the weight of surging demand and cybersecurity threats. The digital divide impeded online access to those and other essential services.

As the country continues to adjust to a new normal, governments need IT systems capable of effective service delivery. As Brian Elms noted in Governing, “Let’s be candid: Before the pandemic hit, “normal” meant that 85 percent of services were done in person and by hand using legacy technology.”  Out of this terrible crisis, there is an opportunity to transform the way we do business, using a strategic blend of technology upgrades and process redesign.  

Fix our processes first  

The new IT systems risk becoming high-tech replications of mazes of red tape, clogged with extraneous requirements unless we first fix our processes. As Bill Gates cautioned, “The first rule of any technology used in a business process is that automation applied to an efficient process will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Redesign can be done expeditiously with the use of Lean process improvement tools. These tools, adapted from manufacturing, are a proven method for boosting quality and efficiency. Lean consultants can assist governmental entities to develop a strategic approach, focusing on core processes.     

Working process by process, Lean facilitators guide project teams comprised of employees from every function within each process.  Teams should include a member of the IT department, and someone from outside the process who can examine it with fresh eyes. A customer such as a permit applicant can be a valuable addition to the team.  

These projects, known as kaizens, typically take three to five days. Teams map the process exactly as it is currently conducted and assess the value of each step. By understanding the purpose of each requirement, they can determine which should be maintained, modified, or eliminated. The team maps the new workflow and formulates an implementation plan. Archaic provisions subject to administrative discretion can be removed immediately. Changes requiring action of governing bodies can take longer.

In these times, there should be fewer obstacles to change. A compelling case can be made that nonessential regulatory quirks will drive up the cost and complexity of any IT system. Once the new process is confirmed, the business requirements for the new system can be developed.

Develop Standard Work

From the macro perspective, governmental entities could reduce rework by developing standard processes across jurisdictions. Town clerks, law enforcement, first responders, city planners, tax collectors, and other municipal officials in thousands of jurisdictions conduct similar public responsibilities with slight variations. They have all developed their own way of doing the same things. Why? The classic answer: “Because that’s the way it’s always been done.” Thousands of municipalities determine specifications, issue RFPs, evaluate bids, and work with vendors on customizations to automate common business processes such as permitting, tax collection, payroll, asset management, and purchasing.

The concept of standardization can be considered for the states. Despite variation in agency configurations, the 50 states have a core set of common responsibilities. Should each state, and each agency within the state, design and acquire their own system for functions conducted in all 50 jurisdictions? 

Lean practitioners seek to reduce rework.  We see the human effort and financial cost of designing thousands of separate systems, knowing that those resources could be redeployed to other urgent priorities.  

Lean techniques are already in use in dozens of states and municipalities. Cross-jurisdictional Lean could avoid the rework of each municipality leaning each of its processes. Standard processes could enable the purchase of standard IT systems, avoiding costly customizations. 

Existing networks of state and municipal associations and professional organizations could form the basis for large scale Lean initiatives. Public administrators already use these networks to share innovative ideas, cooperative purchasing, and professional development across jurisdictions. Each of these endeavors improves efficiency, enhances quality, and avoids rework.  

Regardless of the level of effort – whether process by process or on a broader scale, Lean can prepare state and local governments to maximize the benefit of technology upgrades. Most importantly, these initiatives will better service to our customers. As Ken Miller noted in Extreme Government Makeover, “The work of government is noble. The people in government are amazing. The systems of government are a mess.” Let us use this opportunity to fix our systems.

About Kate McGovern

Daniel Penn Associates senior consultant Kate McGovern is a Lean trainer and practitioner. She has conducted trainings and facilitated kaizen events for state, municipal, and nonprofit organizations. Her state government experience includes developing Lean belt programs for New Hampshire and Vermont and facilitating kaizen events for Rhode Island. In addition to her Lean work, Kate is an adjunct instructor at College Unbound. She has an MPA from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. from Fielding Graduate University. She is the author of “A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri.”

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