Pandemic has spawned all sorts of government innovations, and not all at the federal level

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A year in, and government at all levels are assessing how they’ve responded, to the pandemic, that is, and what innovations they might want to keep, and not let fade away. The IBM Center for the Business of Government has put together a series of essays that examine the lessons learned and the innovation success. Leadership Fellow Michael Keegan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with some of the findings.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Fellow Michael Keegan. Michael, good to have you on.

Michael Keegan: Hey, Tom, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Tom Temin: Well tell us about these essays. What’s the genesis? What prompted this collection?

Michael Keegan: You know, the title of the report, the special report we put out, is COVID-19 and its impact. As you mentioned, seven essays to reframing government management operations. And, you know, in this day and age COVID-19 would be the word that seems to have, you know, the most meaning, but for me, impact is the most important part of that title. And, you know, how has the pandemic impacted the way government does business and that’s, you know, that’s our mission at the center, we conduct public management research to practice and we do this in a variety of ways. And one way is to fund third party independent research from academics and practitioners who become thought leaders. And usually this culminates in a long form report that offers practical, actionable recommendations to, you know our main audience Tom is government executives and program admission owners across government. But that usually takes six to nine months. So, the pandemic has had its impact. And though we’re still going that route and funding, you know, pandemic pandemic response reports, we thought, and we knew we had to do something, something now to gauge what’s happening at the government level, and what the do normal will be once the pandemic recedes. And, you know, that’s your point about the innovation. So, fast forward, fall/winter 2020, we decided to do a challenge grant competition, soliciting essays from academics and practitioners, describing how government can best transform the way it works, operates, and deliver services to the public, given the impact of the pandemic. And the end product is the report we’re talking about today, which is COVID-19 and its impact, seven essays to, on reframing government management, and operations. Three themes, three key themes undergird this whole thing. How government work is done, how government is operating, and the importance of managing risk and building resiliency.

Tom Temin: And we should point out that many of the findings have come from the state and local level, and not necessarily just federal.

Michael Keegan: Yes, and it’s a great point, you know, though many of the essays focus on or make references to local and municipal government efforts, they documented innovations and insights that are applicable to all levels of government. As we know being here in DC, most of government, most of the federal government is outside the Beltway. And in fact, in some cases, they may be co-located with some of the local governments that are documented in this report. And so it is not a huge leap to take some of these innovations, some of these suggestions, some of the frontline explanations, and apply it to our federal colleagues and our federal mission leaders. You know, typically Tom you know, you get a question around, is our essays just academics? Well, actually, it’s both. Typically the audience we seek to reach our government executives and program owners, our mission is to conduct research or practices, as I said earlier, but usually we rely on a network of recognized academics to research and offer insights into critical public management challenges facing those government executives. So our report is a combination of academics and practitioners. In fact, there’s a McKenzie and Gil essay which highlights the innovative work being done in King County, Washington, and responding to the pandemic. Rodney Scott documents New Zealand’s success. He is a government practitioner. Sherri Greenberg was a state of Texas politician and statesperson. And she is a practitioner turned academic now and focuses on the changing nature of government work from in person services to remote virtualization. And we have a host of other leading academics and researchers, I’d be remiss in not mentioning Rick Feiock, Rob Handfield, Zack Huitink, and Tad McGalliard. It is a good combination of both academics and practitioners turned thought leaders.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michael Keegan, leadership fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. And adding all of this up, what comes through to you or to a reader that might stand out as reforms caused by the pandemic that are likely to remain even after it’s gone, because it’s just a better way for government to operate?

Michael Keegan: That’s a good question. So, identify how work is done Tom. So, the pandemic disrupted and displaced many long accepted practices in government operations and management. I mean, almost overnight, government workers shifted to working remotely and you know, servicing residents and citizens online. According to a recent study by Upwork, some form or fashion of remote working – telework, as we refer to it – is here to stay. There’s another study of mayors and city managers, which suggests telework, because of the pandemic, is taking tremendous leaps forward, and it’s a recognized benefit now. It increases job satisfaction, productivity, reduces time loss from commuting, lowers overhead for facilities utilities, and, interestingly enough, it’s a competitive and appealing recruitment tool for governments at all levels. So many government jobs can be done remotely, even jobs originally assumed to be in person like inspections. There’s a nice anecdote here, that inspections are being done virtually using FaceTime. So what we’re seeing is non standard work arrangements of flexibility are the next normal in local governments, and most likely, in a way in the federal space as well. You know, one thing that we have to note is the pandemic has been catastrophic. It’s had a catastrophic impact on society and culture. But it may also be the most significant catalyst of change, you know, remote working, introduction of emerging technologies like robotic process automation. These are things that have been happening, and now the pandemic has sort of accelerated their acceptance.

Tom Temin: And on the federal side, one of the essays was devoted to procurement and the need for more agility. And this comes up from time to time every time there’s a disaster, and even though the FAR, the Federal Acquisition Regulation, actually has a great deal of accommodation for emergency procurement, everybody seems to forget it, or they don’t use it in the correct way. What are some of those findings in particular?

Michael Keegan: That’s a great point. So the pandemic was a shock to many systems, but the federal procurement system, how government procures mission critical goods and services, there was an unprecedented demand on public procurement for such critical things as personal protective equipment and testing kits. The key insight to that essay is while government cannot predict the future, government agencies can and must seize the present by better position the procurement function for when the worst occurs. And one way to do that is to manage risk in the procurement function. So the essay identifies like six actions, I’ll give you, I’ll highlight some of them. One is to make, and you know, federal agencies are doing enterprise risk management, so they’re managing at the enterprise level. So one thing Zack Huitink mentions in his essay is the chief procurement officer acquisition officer must be actively involved in strategic planning and goal setting, as they provide insight on how contracting enables mission and agency success. And a good practice he highlights is established a steering committee comprised of leaders from across the organization, mission owners and business owners. They can assess mission relevant risks, identify exposure, and develop proper treatment. And that’s the key. That’s one of the keys he mentioned. He also says agencies if they’re not doing this, they should be doing this. They need to collaborate. They need to have their chief procurement officer collaborate with agency mission owners and identify essential procurement assets, IT facilities, what have you, determined the precise areas of risk exposure and develop risk treatments that make assets function, even if they are disrupted. How can we make sure that if there is another shock to the system, we are able to do a work around for a certain amount of time and immediate amount of time, and then bounce back, get back? And that’s the resilience aspect. It’s withstanding the initial shock, but being able to recover quickly. In the end, Tom, it really is about getting this information. And for government executives, it’s about understanding the supply chain nodes, the procurement cycle, how it gets mission critical assets, goods and services, prioritizing those critical assets and assessing how vulnerable they are. And once you have that information, you are able to better position yourself and make better decisions. So at least if a threat turns into a loss, you’ll be able to find a way out and in a sense, look at risk recast risk as a way to innovate.

Tom Temin: Michael Keegan is a leadership fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michael Keegan: Tom it was great being with you.

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