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Feedback loops: Measuring results is easier in the private sector

August 12th, 2010 | Posted by Scott Burns CEO of GovDelivery in E-Government | Government 2.0 | Web 2.0

By Scott Burns, CEO & co-Founder, GovDelivery

(Apologies to anyone outside the U.S. for this metaphor.)

Imagine waking up one morning to attend a soccer game. You arrive a bit late and the game is already in progress. What you see is mind numbing. The players all have padded gear on, stop play every time their awkwardly shaped brown leather ball touches the ground, waste time tackling each other, move ten yards at a time, etc.  You can only conclude that what you’re observing is utter madness.  Obviously, these people don’t understand the rules of soccer!

I think this is the frustrating experience of many business people when they observe or start working in government. (See a previous post on this: “Why can’t we be more like the private sector”) With all of the budget challenges facing our public sector, there have already been countless articles and ideas about how government needs to function more like the private sector.

In my 10 years of leading GovDelivery and our work exclusively with public sector clients across the U.S. and U.K., I’ve learned that, on the whole, public sector employees are completely rationale people in rationale entities making rationale decisions.  Just like watching a football game and expecting soccer, watching public sector behavior and expecting General Mills or Ford, will leave you confused and frustrated by, but General Mills, Ford, Amazon, and all other private companies have a far simpler agenda — to make money — than does the public sector.

The public sector’s stakeholders include citizens with a broad range of expectations, values, and needs not to mention elected officials who are supposed to represent citizen’s needs, but sometimes miss the mark. The public sector has to consider the needs of future citizens, non-citizens, corporate entities, and employees as well. Combine these many complexities with the need for transparency and the additional constraints on public sector decision making, at least in a democracy, and it’s easy to appreciate the wonder that is our functioning government.

Andrew Hoppin, CIO of the New York State Senate, summarized the challenges of complex feedback loops in the public sector versus the private sector in an interview at the Gov 2.0 Expo earlier this year.

Andrew has worked in politics, technology companies, and now (very effectively) in government. He was recently recognized as CIO of the year in New York. He’s a problem solver and believes that government can get better feedback because of new engagement technologies made possible by Web 2.0. He has an excellent blog as well.

I agree with Andrew, and it’s imperative that we use metrics, but let’s not kid ourselves… public sector is never going to have it is easy as private companies. The first step to a more efficient and effective public sector is to step back and see its challenges clearly. If you understand the rules of the game being played, it’s far easier to improve performance.

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One Response

  • jim says:

    Well said, and I think most of your comments are on point. But, in the same vein large corporations have problems with bureaucracy, lets not let public sector off the hook that easy.
    If, in your 10 years with GovDelivery, you did not encounter some portion of public service who chose NOT to do the right thing, simply because it was expedient, I would be amazed. When we say the “private sector” do we want Gov to be more like BP or Google? both are huge companies, but look at the huge cultural differences and framework for accomplishments.
    Everyone points to the private sector being in the business of “making money” as a far simpler agenda than public sector – what then should we make of the complete lack of effective, budget-driven strategic performance measures in public agencies, which are mandated by law? If profit is not a motive, compliance should be.
    No, the grass is not always greener, but we shouldn’t obfuscate real, and troubling, cultural differences that prevent the level of effective government everyone envisions when they draw comparisons to the private sector.



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