What’s more agile: a startup or a government agency?
It sounds like a trick question — usually the two are perceived to be on opposite ends of the adaptability spectrum. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Startups have the freedom that comes with a fresh start, while facing the pressure of immediate accomplishment — which requires nimble decision-making and action.
In contrast, government entities inherit both the benefits and, more often, the burdens of legacy systems and operating procedures from their predecessors, and face intense scrutiny whenever an attempt to change or update the status quo is made.
Even governmental changes that are obviously necessary and seamlessly executed will be debated by a broad array of stakeholders who may not see the value vis-à-vis the taxpayer’s expense. In an environment where you likely can’t please everyone, governments are incentivized to move slowly and adopt changes cautiously.
Changing gradually may feel like the more comfortable path for local governments. But the startup “sink-or-swim on a shoe-string budget” model is often what actually gets work done. It forces these organizations to operate extremely efficiently, leaning heavily on their people and relying solely on key performance indicators (results!).
It’s surprising that local governments, considering resource and budget constraints, have not looked to the startup model sooner, as it can shed light on some winning strategies applicable to any organization — even the operational beast that is local government.
While there are obstacles to overcome in government, a more startup-like, innovation-centric culture is possible in public sector organizations. I know because I reinforce this culture in my role as a public sector leader every day.
Here are 5 important tips that government entities can take from a startup’s playbook:
1. Be obsessed with your customers
Government tends to be very stakeholder-centric — not human-centric. This is ironic, considering the core mission of the public service.
Just think of what we could accomplish toward the goal of true public service if we hired people who focused on design thinking or human-centered design, and expanded a user-centered approach that puts the citizen at that center.
With challenges around equity, the digital divide, and most recently, navigating through uncertain times such as these, local governments have no choice but to look to strategies that will help establish or build back trust in their communities. And this starts with a cultural shift across public sector organizations to make inclusive CX paramount through technology and service delivery.
And while we technology leaders do rely heavily on leading products to support our goals in our respective organizations, we must be careful not to rely solely on technology. Technology alone cannot be the strategy.
At Clark County, NV we have aligned our technology initiatives around people, process and technology. As an example, we started migrating to the cloud pre-pandemic with the goal of improving collaboration and productivity with Microsoft O365, and then adding electronic signature processes with Adobe sign. The timing worked to our advantage. We were able to pivot our employees quickly to continue providing essential services to our residents and businesses.
3. Move with urgency
Startups are racing against time. As a result, they must be firing on all cylinders at all times. Conversely, traditional government operations are bogged down by bureaucracy and arguably allow for too much complacency.
As a public sector leader, you should utilize every opportunity to combat this and step up the pace, expecting a high-quality outcome that aligns with your organizational goals.
Stepping up the pace doesn’t always cause people to do things faster. But they’ll start doing things differently and become more demanding of others. And that’s what's needed in an organization.
Now, there are a variety of reasons your staff may not be operating with the urgency you’d like to see. Take a step back and make sure you’ve communicated the objectives clearly, that your strategy aligns with your purpose, and that you’re approaching your own work with the sense of urgency you expect from your people. When someone asks if they can get back to me next week, I respond with “how about tomorrow afternoon?”
Don’t be afraid to push your people, don’t underestimate the importance of leadership by example, and make it a priority to energize your team around your strategic objectives daily. If you do all these things, you’ll be surprised at what your organization is able to accomplish in a very short window of time.
4. Build a communication culture
Governments are very siloed. That is just a function of the beast because there are so many unique business lines in a public sector organization. While these silos have been relied on as an “out” for why more cross-departmental data sharing is not possible or why some projects seem to move at a glacial pace, more tools are entering the space that help organizations break down these barriers to communication.
While cloud-based tools for communication are a given in the startup world, the pandemic has presented an opportunity for local governments to explore more of these technologies to ramp up seamless communication. This is critical for business continuity and now, more than ever, to support our communities, including small business owners and entrepreneurs.
From MS Teams to Adobe e-sign to VMWare’s virtualization, Clark County is leveraging modern digital tools for more effective and streamlined communication with our teams, stakeholders, and our communities.
Working at a startup is like an adventurous roller-coaster ride. It’s a world full of challenges and possibilities — not unlike our work in local government. But unlike most governments, the nimble and results-based culture in startups better enables them to pivot when needed — and quickly.
The tolerance for local governments to fail comes at a much higher risk due to visibility and citizen perception (not to mention the funding is likely coming from taxpayers).
We have a responsibility to our communities and stakeholders to deliver best-in-class services. This is going to involve leveraging some leading technologies where possible and experimenting with different strategies to get there and we need to work collectively to break down this stigma around “failure” in local government. If experimentation and change is not allowed, how else are we going to keep pace?
Ultimately, failure should only be seen as such if it is not identified quickly and continues to plague an organization long after something could have been done about it. The key is to have metrics in place to identify what’s working, what isn't, and to be able to pivot quickly.
Here are some personal tips for how to enable the startup-like ‘quick pivot’:
Define clear goals or expectations
Set deliverables in reasonable time chunks to ensure projects remain on track
Establish consistent check-ins to monitor progress
Reinforce open lines of communication across all levels of the organization
Manage to objectives and results
Since public services belong to everyone, rapid delivery and high quality are the two tenets of any successful strategy. Maintaining a laser focus on key objectives and re-evaluating priorities and deliverables consistently (using more of an agile approach) will ensure your organization does not fall victim to large scale projects missing the mark.
Local governments large and small have an exciting role to play as society continues to embrace the advancements of a technological future. By leveraging more of a startup mindset (starting with these tips) in organizational structures and systems, government leaders will be well-positioned to navigate through these disruptive and unpredictable times.
For free information and resources on digital transformation, human-centered design, culture work in local government, and more, visit Govlaunch.
Nadia Hansen is the Chief Information Officer for Clark County, in Las Vegas NV. Clark County is an $8 billion public enterprise, the nation’s 11th-largest county providing extensive regional services to more than 2.3 million citizens and more than 45.6 million visitors a year, including McCarran International Airport, the nation’s 9th-busiest, and University Medical Center, the state’s largest public hospital.
As the leader of the IT function at Clark County, Nadia is responsible for delivering technology infrastructure and software solutions to 10,000 employees across 140+ locations.
Nadia has more than 20 years of experience leading and developing technology functions for large organizations and startups. Nadia serves as an advisory board member for several gov tech organizations. Nadia ensures that the IT organization is "reimagining citizen services" by leading the way in platforms, cloud supported applications, digitizing business services, and data analytics. Prior to her current role, Nadia has held many leadership and technology roles across casino gaming, IT consulting, and business intelligence verticals.
Nadia earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and is pursuing an Executive MBA from UCLA Anderson.