The Collaboration Imperative for State and Local Government

It’s about to get ugly.

In the coming years, state and local financial pressures will be relentlessly increasing. Economic growth will not generate enough momentum to take our state and local governments out of the hole. As the US General Accountability Office has demonstrated, operating deficits will be growing for as far as the eye can see.

Business executives are also confronting old systems that have run their course. Markets are demanding more flexibility, openness and agility. This shift has given rise to an imperative to collaborate. The reason is simple. Traditional hierarchical, command-and-control organizations are falling apart. These pressures are promoting more collaboration in the form of open innovation and new approaches to business model innovation.

Our Current Political Dysfunction: An Expensive Indulgence

The same cannot be said of our state and local governments. Indeed a number of factors create a strong headwind that can quickly snuff out new thinking about how to deliver public services more productively. Consider:

Boundary obsession.– To start, politics is a game of boundaries. When you think of it, we hire politicians to take care of a piece of dirt. So it’s not surprising that politicians are obsessed with their boundaries. They sit behind these invisible boundaries; it’s not too dissimilar to the invisible fences that deter our dogs from wandering.

Policy rigidity.– State and federal policy reinforce these boundaries. Programs are designed to be delivered within these boundaries, and there are a few incentives to spur innovation across political boundaries. When the federal government has tried to encourage collaboration, it’s efforts become rapidly mired in bureaucratic rules.

Brand Me.– Political leaders, trying to define their own career path, are focused on Brand Me. They have little time for Brand We. Every ounce of energy spent on Brand We represents time and resources pulled away from Brand Me. Efforts at campaign finance reform have weakened the political parties, and that has likely had the unintended consequence of driving fundraising toward strengthening Brand Me. With the demise of parties, elected officials are rapidly becoming independent contractors, free lancers loyal to themselves. Earlier this year, I was discussing this problem in Southampton, England, and a member of the audience pointed me to a Monty Python video that captures the problem of Brand Me.

Corruption, large and small.– Corruption stabilizes the current system. People are making money off the current dysfunction. Within each political boundary, a different political dynamic prevails. Keeping the system closed reinforces the corrupt relationships. From time to time, independent prosecutors try to crack the systems through prosecutions, as demonstrated by the recent indictment of the Speaker of the Alabama House. But these efforts are weak tea. Perceptions of corruption are widespread and growing.

The Winds of Change Pushing Collaboration

Our traditional approaches to state and local politics are failing us at a bad time. The size and velocity of our challenges are growing exponentially. This shift is propelling collaboration forward. A growing number of people are recognizing that our traditional approaches are just not working. Relatively small experiments in collaboratioon are underway, but we can expect these innovations to grow in both number and scale in the years ahead.

Consider these factors:

Demographics.– Let’s face it. Older people (primarily white and male) have dominated the world of hierarchies and command and control thinking. Now these demographics are shifting. More women and younger people are becoming involved in leadership positions. In my experience, both women and young people are more open to “horizontal” thinking that transcends organizational and political boundaries.

Mobility, connectivity and boundary spanning.– We are far more mobile, connected, and willing to cross invisible political boundaries than we ever have before. Some years ago, Cisco produced a commercial, Welcome to the Human Network, that captured these shifts. They’ve only accelerated since then.

Transparency, big data and collaborative platforms.– At the same time, technology is rolling back the curtain on government operations. As citizens can both view data and interact with it, they’re coming up with new approaches to define innovative services. We are starting to see a new wave of government innovation that makes our existing political boundaries, if not irrelevant, certainly less controlling. SeeClickFIx is only one example.

Social media, civic engagement and the growing demand for collective responses.– Some years ago, Thomas Homer Dixon wrote an important book, called The Ingenuity Gap. Homer Dixon argues that our current political arrangements are not generating sufficient ingenuity to handle the rapidly evolving challenges we face in our world. While the gap still exists, increasing citizen engagement — if we can harness and focus the energy — will help us close the gap. The challenges we face – – fiscal implosions, water shortages, severe climate events, and public health epidemics, to name a few – – will not respect the political boundaries drawn hundreds of years ago. NASA’s Center of Excellence For Collaborative Innovation is a pioneer in these experiments to exploit the powers of crowdsourcing and open innovation.

Today’s political leadership faces a choice. Along one path, leaders can choose to follow crumbling conventions. They can stand at the barricades and nail a few more boards to the wall. This path is full of tension, conflict and controversy. There will never be enough money keep the wall from collapsing.

The second path is far more promising. It involves building new platforms for citizen collaborations that extend beyond our traditional organizational and political boundaries. Eventually, more political leaders will find themselves on the collaboration path. The pay-offs will be greater.

It’s time for state and local political leaders, with courage enough, to seek new opportunities.