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Government Should Work Like a Startup (Contributed)

COVID-19 has forced government agencies to ask a lot of their citizens as businesses close and schools go online. In return, the public sector should take bold steps to move forward with a startup-like innovation mindset.

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The COVID-19 virus is forcing American society’s acceleration into the digital future and revealing stark truths about the changes necessary for us to thrive as we explore new ways to work, learn, worship, shop and enjoy life.

Digital leaders are emerging during this transformation with a mixture of vision and pragmatism to serve customers in new ways and plot their course toward a successful digital future. Businesses are reinventing, innovating and finding new ways to serve their customers.

Those focused on deciding their own future are thinking and acting like startups — nimble, agile, responsive and fast. Those waiting on a bailout, a complete reopening or a cure will likely fail.

As emerging digital leaders navigate this transformation, governors across America have taken the lead in shutting down their states, managing their state's public health response, and plotting out the steps for reopening and recovery. Government is playing a key role in providing the institutional support — unemployment, health care, payroll and public health measures — needed to ease the reopening transition for people and businesses.

As part of that reopening and recovery, it is time for governments to do what the businesses they have closed are doing: act like a startup and lead with a digital-first focus.

Government leaders must think critically about reducing friction at all the points where citizens interact with the necessary functions of government bureaucracy. The mandatory distancing and outright isolation of the last few months have made it clear that friction in those interactions can slow recovery and diminish the trust citizens have in government.

As they contemplate reopening public offices, government leaders should examine how every business process in their organizations can be reimagined to better serve residents, businesses and workers. Just as curbside grocery pickup, streaming fitness classes, online religious services and more are helping people meet their needs, the same can be applied to government services from fishing licenses to drivers' licenses and permitting to vital records.

Unfortunately, government IT holds a great deal of technical debt that leaders must address in order to provide more equitable, efficient and resilient services.

With trillions of dollars in federal aid flowing into the economy, governments should focus some of the resources they are receiving on updating and strengthening core digital assets. Building and maintaining good digital infrastructure, expanding connectivity into underserved communities and implementing core cybersecurity practices are critical foundational pieces. Combining these elements with smart and updated business processes will enable government to serve citizens where they are and help in the recovery.

There will be hiccups in moving to digital practices — systems with bugs, a crashed network and other common IT ailments — but business leaders and citizens should demand an acceleration of these practices and resist criticizing government leaders who take bold steps into a digital transformation. Calculated risk-takers should be rewarded for accelerating change that will benefit citizens and lower the cost of delivering government services in the long haul.

Government is asking a great deal of its citizens — shutting down businesses, schools, child-care centers and most public services while residents keep paying taxes to cover government worker salaries and services they are not always receiving. Citizens should demand to collect on what they are paying for and ask that government meet their needs with the innovation of the private sector.

As citizens turn to government during this time, government should be prepared with smart, accessible digital entry points that serve people swiftly, efficiently and comprehensively. Just like the businesses that are innovating, surviving and serving, now is the time for government to demonstrate bold digital leadership to meet citizens’ needs as we move through recovery and into the future. 

Tyler Clark helped create the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology and served as the agency’s first chief of staff from 2016 to 2019, capping nearly a decade in state government. He is Director of Public Affairs and Innovation at Serafin & Associates, a Chicago-based public affairs communications firm.