Government workers need digital tools to meet citizens’ high expectations for service

I contributed — as a subcontractor to Lundberg Media — to a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services about the use of “Digital Tools for Public Works” (free PDF to download).


The report finds that government agencies are slowly embracing the use of digital tools to empower the firstline workers who provide public services. The applications range from providing tablets to welfare caseworkers in the field, to the ability to pinpoint the location of a tire-crunching pothole with a geotagged smartphone photo.

Government executives and CIOs want to meet the high service expectations of a citizenry that has become accustomed to the speed and convenience of paying bills or ordering pizzas and car rides on mobile apps. But extremely tight government budgets (and silo-ed data) have prevented many agencies from moving as quickly as they might like.


Innovative government: Oxymoron or something to cultivate?

Innovation is often viewed as the province of the private sector, but the current economic climate and other big challenges such as terrorism, energy policy and health care mean that government will need to become more innovative to tackle those challenges.

That’s the message of “Innovation State,” an article by Bill Eggers & Shalabh Kumar Singh in the Deloitte Review, Winter 2009.

Already there are pockets of government innovation, including the  “311” citizen complaint hotlines that started in Baltimore. (Call the number and you get the relevant agency person within 10 seconds.) But the innovation efforts are sporadic, piecemeal and easily torpedoed by entrenched stakeholders. The authors say widespread government innovation will require the following steps:

  • Cultivate new ideas by engaging employees. For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Agency’s “Idea Factory” is a secure intranet that allows employees to submit ideas for improving agency operations and processes. Employees have submitted some 4,500 ideas — and 20 have been implemented.
  • Replicate the great ideas from other federal and state agencies — customizing them to meet local needs. The Texas Performance Review “has saved the state billions of dollars over the years by searching far and wide for innovations that can be applied to Texas government.”
  • Establish partnerships among government agencies and between government, private industry, universities and nonprofits to generate new resources and new ideas. “When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to transform the city’s under-performing public school system, he used partnerships to launch innovative pilot programs and sidestep organizational logjams.”

My view: The biggest challenge of all will be creating a “culture of innovation” inside the bureaucracy. It’s not certain that this is even possible (bureaucracy and innovation do seem mutually exclusive). But the nation’s challenges are so great that we’ll need to try. As the article concludes: “This will be difficult, and government will not likely acquire a reputation for innovation next month or even next year. Someday, however, innovative government may roll off the tongue naturally.”

Twitter: RT @mitchbetts Can government be innovative? May be an oxymoron, but we need to try. Big challenges require innovative approaches.

OK, the 401(k) retirement system didn’t work. What’s next?

For years the conventional wisdom has been to plow money into 401(k) plans for retirement. Anyone who didn’t was considered a financial dunce. Well, so much for conventional wisdom. The 401(k) system has “serious shortcomings,” says The Wall Street Journal (“Big slide in 401(k)s spurs calls for change,” 8 January 2009). Employees have seen their retirement accounts drop, 20%, 30%, 44% in the economic downturn.

“This is the biggest test that the 401(k) plan has seen to date, and it has failed,” says Robyn Credico, head of defined-contribution consulting at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, noting that many baby boomers are ready to retire. “We’ve put people close to retirement in a very challenging position.”

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

[E]ven when workers make good choices, a market meltdown near the end of their working careers can still blow their savings to smithereens.

“That seems like such a fundamental flaw,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “It’s so crazy to have a system where people can lose half their assets right before they retire.”

The U.S. Congress is beginning to take a look at retirement and 401(k) policy, starting with an October 2008 committee hearing with a variety of witnesses.

Some proposed setting up “universal” retirement accounts, which would cover all workers. One such plan called for establishing accounts that would receive annual contributions from the federal government, and would offer a guaranteed, but relatively low, rate of return. Another proposed automatically investing contributions in an index fund that holds stocks and bonds, with the mix getting more conservative as workers approach retirement.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, recently issued the following principles for future 401(k) reform:

  • Expose excess fees that Wall Street middlemen take from workers accounts.
  • Bring young and low-wage workers into the system at a higher rate through automatic enrollment for employers already offering 401(k)s.
  • Ensure that retirement accounts have diversified investment options with low fees, including low-cost index funds.
  • Ensure workers have access to reliable independent investment advice.
  • Reduce vesting periods and improve portability of 401(k) accounts.

But is this just minor tinkering with a system still dependent upon the wildly fluctuating stock market (not much different from gambling)? Do we need more radical reform that provides a solid financial foundation for retirement?


For Twitter: RT @mitchbetts “OK, the 401(k) retirement system didn’t work. What’s next?”

‘The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun’

Robert Reich — author, professor and former U.S. secretary of labor — describes the mood of the American populace tonight, shortly before the U.S. Senate vote on the so-called financial bailout bill. His conclusion: “angry populism is about to explode.”

This mood will last longer than one night or one week; it will carry over into the November elections and well into the first year of the next White House administration.

Excerpts from Reich’s blog post:

While more Americans are coming around to “supporting” the bailout bill, the vast majority still hate the idea of bailing out Wall Street. They’re for the bailout bill now only because they fear that a failure to pass it will have worse consequences — drying up credit at a time when Main Street is struggling. But make no mistake: America is mad as hell. They resent what they perceive as extortion by the Masters of the Universe.

Angry populism has always been a potent force in American politics. And now, with wages dropping, jobs insecure, fuel and food and health-insurance costs soaring, and millions of homes in jeopardy — and what’s perceived to be a massive taxpayer bailout of some of the richest people in the land — angry populism is about to explode.

The larger economic outlook is not encouraging. All signs point to the economy worsening, bailout or no bailout. Unemployment will continue to rise. Median earnings will continue to drop, adjusted for inflation. More Americans will lose their health insurance.

The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun.

The resurgence of anti-business populism; more regulation ahead

State experiments with the four-day work week

Utah became the first U.S. state to put its government workforce on a four-day work week, and some other states may follow. The “Working 4 Utah” initiative — a response to soaring energy costs and tight budgets — will begin in August.

Government service hours will be extended to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and offices will be closed Fridays (except for essential public services).

Utah expects to cut electrical and utility costs (13.5 hours on Fridays) and will monitor the energy savings. For employees, it may mean they can get household chores done on Fridays, according to Workforce Management (14 July 2008). But day care and public transportation services will need to accommodate the extended hours (10-hour work days) Monday through Thursday.

State officials in Minnesota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arkansas are examining the feasibility of a four-day schedule, Workforce Management reported. Also, Colorado is mulling it over. Various county governments and towns are, too.