Prior to my life as an IT Management Consultant with CapTech, I worked as an analyst for various local governments both big (upwards of 8 million residents) and small (20,000 residents). Despite the obvious differences that you can imagine a multi-million resident city and small suburban towns might have, two things were consistent. First, I observed a strong desire among the vast majority of municipal employees to provide residents the best service possible. Second, there was an absence of continuous improvement in their culture. During my experience working for local governments, I saw very few process improvement efforts take place. So is it that local governments aren't interested in improving their processes? Of course not but they have two major hurdles. First, there is an unfortunate lack of incentive to change. There is rarely a monetary incentive tied to continuous improvement and often salaries and promotion schedules are rigid.
On an organizational level, management and department heads are rarely incented to improve their processes. Often reducing costs in government does not immediately translate to increased profits as it does in business. Rather reduced costs can result in budget cuts or shifts to programs that are lacking appropriate resources.
The second hurdle is a culture and history of doing things as they've always been done. Governments don't face the same competitive environment as most private sector companies, and therefore a culture of continued performance is more common than one of continuous improvement. People are always resistant to change and that resistance is only increased if there is little incentive to changing.
So how can we address these hurdles? Since reducing the budget doesn't equate to receipt of incentives, another approach is necessary. When you're trying to get buy-in during interviews, try to focus on improving service levels and quality instead of just cost savings. I've been inspired by, government employees' care for and pride in the service they are providing. Tying the case for change to the mission of the agency can be a powerful motivator for process improvement.
During my experience with a civil service department, it had been decided that the city should begin to offer its Civil Service Exams online. The city had been giving civil service tests by paper in the same manner for the past 40 years. It was a multi-year project that would entail the complete redesign of test creation, execution, and evaluation processes. It would require that all of the testers learn a new skillset, and required major stakeholder input and support. In many private sector companies, this type of project would trigger concern as this process change would result in a complete overhaul of many employees' jobs. In my example, a champion was quickly found and the project was a success, due to the fact that the project resulted in a major increase in the level of service provided to residents.
In another example, I was working for a small town in New Jersey, and was approached by a Treasury Assistant with a problem. He was looking for a way to fix the escrow billing process. It had a few problems such as an overabundance of document transfers and high rate of communication breakdowns between the finance department and the planning/zoning department all of which compounded into waste of time and motion. Though cost savings through the reduction of repetitive work would be a benefit, this employee cared most about the handful of times each year where an escrow payment would go missing and the town would have to contact the mortgage holder to reissue a payment. It was considered a failure in service and an embarrassment for the township.
Obviously there will be those in local government whose main consideration is reducing costs, but service quality is an avenue for motivation that can really resonate. The next time you're proposing the idea of process improvement to a department head who seems disinterested in cost savings for their department, try to sell them on improving public facing service quality. Don't be surprised if they suddenly become interested in what you have to say.