By Jesse J. Manning, Vice President of Business Development
How many times have you heard this refrain over the course of the last several decades of political campaigns? In a capitalist society that celebrates the ingenuity of entrepreneurial organizations, political candidates and voters alike have often wondered why we don’t replicate business strategies in our council chambers, our state legislatures and in the White House. It was a common talking point in 2016 when a businessman with no political background won the presidency.
Mostly dependent on your political beliefs, those results have been mixed. But as those of us who have either worked in government or worked with government know, government is not a business. For all the things we can learn from businesses, their processes are all about profit. And, as John Harvey wrote in Forbes in 2012, “not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.”
But what are some of those “profit-driving” factors that could work well for government agencies, particularly in terms of providing new public goods and services? These common business drivers may help your own agency operate with a bit more efficiency:
1. Seek Targeted Customer Feedback
Businesses often survey their customers, either formally or informally. Governments do too; however, the citizen surveys that I’ve come across often attempt to be all-encompassing when it comes to issues. Specific government departments may receive better, more-helpful feedback by lowering the number of recipients and expected responses and targeting specific issues. For example, rather than asking “What’s the number one issue of concern in the City?” ask, “What’s the number one transportation-related issue in the City?”
Answers in general surveys may be overly broad, but a more-targeted survey can help identify specific issues that could be dealt with quickly and inexpensively. For example, if “traffic signal synchronization on Main Street” appears a few times in a targeted survey, traffic engineers have a specific, citizen-identified issue to look into and possibly fix. Such specificity rarely appears in broad surveys, and even if it does, it’s masked by more-generalized answers. Short, targeted surveys make it easier for citizens to respond, as well.
2. Set Timelines
Setting goals and sticking to them is a critical aspect of business success. While it’s hard to imagine governments setting quotas for daily activities or monthly results, project timelines are one area where government accountability could use a kick in the pants. Having sold to governments for over a decade, I’ve seen projects that drift aimlessly for months … and sometimes years … because there was no shared understanding of a project timeline.
When engaging in a project, particularly with multiple stakeholders, set firm timelines up front and hold each other accountable to them. Planning detailed timelines (rather than the simple, and rather meaningless, timelines in most RFPs) can help break up projects into bite-sized chunks that are much more manageable and aren’t as susceptible to delays.
3. Allow in Outside Help
One of the most frustrating aspects of selling to government agencies is being treated with skepticism at best; often, we’re seen as an outright enemy. And I get it: salespeople can be icky, particularly if they don’t understand their products. If they’re pushy, it’s worse. But if you happen to find one who’s willing to educate — not just badmouth his competition or try to woo you with insider gossip and steak dinners — a salesperson can be an ally in actually getting things done.
Staff can save a lot of time if they simply include their vendors in presentations to decision-makers and have an agreed-upon strategy ahead of time: focus on ROI, educate rather than sell and show a mutually-developed plan for getting the project completed. I’ve found that government staff often believe they need to operate in isolation when it comes to seeking approvals for those projects that may benefit the public. They don’t.
In many ways, government will never operate like a business. But if the goal is to replicate some of the more-efficient functions of a business, there is room for improvement. The three points above focus on streamlining decision-making processes, which seem to be a particular challenge for agencies regardless of location or size. However, if you include citizens in decision-making processes, set firm timelines for implementation of those decisions, and allow those seeking your business to do the heavy lifting, you’ll soon start hearing, “Now that’s how a government ought to run!”