To Deliver on Its Promise, Government Must Cultivate Trust

Whether it is maintaining the health and safety of the people or delivering services online, government's core competence is ultimately a matter of trust — just ask anyone living through the pandemic.

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As we look around our COVID-informed world, things look familiar but not normal. The well-worn social distance reminders look like they have always been there, as do signs about wearing masks. We approach each other on sidewalks with the hesitancy and awkwardness of a first date: How close is too close? It all reminds us that, for all their shortcomings, Zoom meetings are comparatively stress free, even if our cameras have given others a deeper look into our private lives than we would have imagined 15 months ago. As much as we want it, there is no normal to get back to. Chalk it up as the great lesson of year one of the COVID-19 era.

Amid the urgency of the moment, our experience with government has changed too. Public service announcements detail public health updates and whether and how businesses, schools and houses of worship are to conduct themselves. Public agencies have worked to uphold the promises made by elected officials while keeping essential services running. We saw what worked and where public institutions came up short. The future in the “after times” is fraught but not without opportunity. Those opportunities may be best seen through the 30-year-old lens of core competencies, first crafted by C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel.

Prahalad now worries core competencies have been misunderstood and misused, even if unintentionally. The original intent was to help organizations identify those things that only they could do, which they would protect and promote at all costs. Instead, the emphasis got placed on the wrong syllable, with organizations jettisoning everything outside of the core or, specifically, things they didn’t do well. It led to disruption and outsourcing, whether or not letting go of such things was in their long-term interests. Moreover, the moves bumped into the irrefutable truth that you cannot outsource a problem.

Looking forward to the “after times” became the focus of conversations with colleagues at the Center for Digital Government (CDG), a sister organization to Government Technology and the research arm of parent company e.Republic. Vice President and Co-Director Phil Bertolini came to CDG from a career in public service where he gained an unshakable sense of the core of county government: “the health, safety and welfare of people” delivered where and when it is needed. To those ends, “government is one of the largest customer service bureaus in our economy.” As such, responsible as it is for the widescale, secure and trustworthy movement of permissions and money, Bertolini says the work of doing those things well means building capacity to make it all possible: modernization, consolidation, cloudification and the embrace of remote work, the need for which was underscored during the first year of the pandemic. And then there is the inconvenient truth that just because an organization is supposed to do something doesn’t mean it is good at it. Now, faced with sometimes competing demands to pivot, public agencies looked for help where they could find it.

Bertolini’s fellow VP and Co-Director Teri Takai said that in her time as CIO of two large states and the U.S. Department of Defense, she saw a disturbing tendency for the outsourcing tail to wag the core competency dog. She is careful to clarify that outsourcing has its place and private-sector companies have stepped up in large measure to partner in earnest with government agencies.

That said, Takai also insists the hard work around core competencies is not done. “It is essential for government to ‘own’ those services that impact citizens. For the most part, I have great faith in public servants,” she explained. “I worry when they are not in control of those decisions that are not about ROI, margins, revenue, but about making sure that services are equitable, fair and go to those who need them. There can be debate about what those are, which is healthy, but the premise behind the debate — the public good — is at its heart.”

That public good, something that defies being reduced to a balance sheet, and delivering on it goes to what e.Republic’s Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Joe Morris regards as the kernel of government’s core competency: trust. The lack of trust in the last 12 months has manifested itself in vaccine reluctance, an unwillingness to accept election results and taking to the streets in protest. “If community or societal success depends on residents’ perception and experience,” Morris said, “delivering on government’s core competence has never mattered more.”

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Paul W. Taylor is the Executive Editor at E.Republic and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.
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