How to Fix Government VI: Improve Government Culture

The Information Diet concludes around this theme: “Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction. Let the legions of information-obese fight on the front lines, and join me in nudging the small nuts and bolts that hold the ship together.” This week, I’m writing a post a day talking about those nuts and bolts. I hope you’ll join the discussion.

If I ever ran for governor, and wanted to stay governor indefinitely, then my first priority would be to revamp the department of motor vehicles. When people think of government, bureaucracy, and incompetence, I think what most are usually thinking about is their last experience at the DMV. It’s one of those things that most people have to deal with at some point or another, and it’s one of those things that always evokes a visceral response. Nothing says dread like “I have to go to the DMV”

So I’d revamp the department of motor vehicles so that the experience would be like going to a 5 star hotel. It’d be completely service oriented. I’d invest in advanced scheduling technology so that there would be no line. I’d invest in good architecture and aesthetics so that the DMV offices would look great and be comfortable. If I were governor, your trip to the DMV would be as easy and as pleasurable as a trip to the Apple Store. People would herald me. They’d say “our government is awesome! Check out our DMV!” and people wouldn’t be able to buy the argument that government was incompetent or lazy.

But most importantly, I’d make sure that great customer focused people worked there. The people who work at the DMV ought to be incentivised to do right by the customer – those that resolve issues and ensure that the customer leaves without contempt will be compensated and rewarded well. And those that don’t, won’t.

Government isn’t a monolith – it’s a wide variety or agencies that are loosely knit by the law, with its own values, incentives, and culture. We spend a lot of time working on how technology can enhance the relationship between government and citizen. It’s time to start thinking about how technology can be used to enhance government’s culture.

Of course, this is the difficult part. The flaw in my plan to become permagovernor is that much of our government workforce isn’t compensated for performance, they’re compensated for time and seniority. There is no incentivization for culture. So if I were mayor, governor, head of a governmental agency, or president of the United States, I’d incorporate a service like DueProps into my organization’s culture.

Due Props is a way to be explicit about praise inside of an organization. While I’ve never used the service, I’m intrigued by it and by what it could do to change the culture of government.

The key to making the DMV like a 5 star hotel, or making an agency like the CFPB or FCC like a 5 star hotel is by improving the working culture of the organization – it isn’t through reforming a collective bargaining agreement or flat out paying people more. While it’s true that salary correlates to happiness to an extent, I strongly suspect that most people working for 100,000 in a toxic culture, are less good at their jobs than people working for 50,000 in a great culture.

My wife’s firm, Fission Strategy has no defined workplace. They’re enirely distributed. Yet they have the best corporate culture of any workplace I’ve ever seen because they make active, practical decisions to deliberately create culture inside the organization. They use tools like Yammer and Skype, along with a culturally explicit way of praising people that make it so that people that work there, despite being in places as remote as Guam, feel connected to one another.

When we think of government, we think of it being completely absent of culture, and that ought to change. There ought to be an app contest that incentivises people to build more things like DueProps that government can use to solve problems with itself. Some of them are pretty basic (there is no shared employee directory between government agencies, for instance) and others are a bit more challenging, but the challenges of helping government have great culture are every bit as important as helping government interact with citizens better.

In other words, all the technology in the world won’t help government’s relationship with ordinary people if the people on the inside are just trying to get to the end of the day.

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