229 – Coronavirus and local government – time for a new O/S?

800 words (4 minutes reading time)                                                           by Colin Weatherby

A new city operating system cover Goldsmith

This is the first in a series of posts requested to discuss the Coronavirus and local government services.

I recently read ‘A New City O/S – The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. Some time ago I read ‘A Responsive City‘ by Stephen Goldsmith and this latest book takes Goldsmith’s thinking about cities and their governance to a new level. As a former Mayor (Indianapolis), deputy Mayor (New York) and the current Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Stephen Goldsmith is well credentialled to discuss local government.

It is timely to read Goldsmith and Kleiman’s book as local government services adapt to the Coronavirus, react to ensure the safety of staff and the community, seek to understand emerging service demands, and start to look ahead at recovery and the best way to deliver services post-Coronavirus. Both threats and opportunities are present.

The notion of local government needing a new operating system is both novel and creative in making the case for change. It is an analogy that we all now understand in this technological age. Operating systems need to be updated regularly or your system becomes obsolete. In fact, Goldsmith and Kleiman spend a lot of time discussing the origins of the current local government operating system in response to patronage, nepotism, incompetence and corruption. They conclude that today the system, that has served the community well for 100 years, is typified by fragmentation and silos, risk aversion, and employees working to rule.

“Absent an outcome-based orientation, city departments now promote fidelity to work rules and risk avoidance over measurable accomplishment.”

Changes in society have accelerated the need to change the local government operating system. Goldsmith has previously used the term ‘retail government ‘ to describe government services that put the citizen first in providing responsive and timely service. He has now added the ‘Amazoning’ of services to describe personalised web pages that could be available to each citizen when dealing with their local government. I am sure you get the idea – he believes people want government services to be more like the services they experience in other parts of their life and governments are simply not keeping up.

“A new O/S for local government leverages modern technologies by designing responses around the citizen and the employee that allows government to act in time.”

Goldsmith and Kleiman describe a ‘pivot’ for the new operating system. Essentially, it involves a change from a ‘closed’, command and control, centralised service producer with a strong focus on compliance, to an ‘open’ organisation that collaborates, empowers, and puts solving citizen problems first.

The new operating system pivots local government (from Goldsmith and Kleiman, 2017)

a new os pivot table

It was interesting to read this book while self-isolating at home and working remotely to deliver core operational services. I was learning to use video-conferencing, remotely access corporate data sources, and hold people accountable without seeing them or their work. It forced me and my colleagues to get close to the work, focus on data about demands, and to trust that staff were doing their work safely and well. Changes in work practices that were actively resisted before the Coronavirus were now quickly becoming commonplace.

Goldsmith and Kleiman provide a detailed analysis of the many local government attempts to improve services through what they call ‘project innovations’. It includes innovations like external performance reporting, citizen response apps, open data, big data, smart cities, nudge, participatory budgeting, social impact bonds. Their discussion is worth reading, as are the innovations documented at The Ash Center.  It is clear that local government needs an impetus for change. Perhaps we now have it.

I will close with a brief overview of how Goldsmith and Kleiman see a new operating system fitting in. They position it as enabling a new government model of distributed governance, in which the council is part of a distributed network of service providers (i.e. residents, contractors, community groups, local institutions, not-for-profit and for-profit organisations). Distributed governance and the new O/S go hand in hand as shown below.

Elements of distributed governance (from Goldsmith and Kleiman, 2017)

a new os distributed governance

The book goes into a detailed explanation of distributed governance and the new operating system. For some councils, this would be a big change. For others it would be an intensification of alliance networks that already exist to draw on different skills, access different groups within the community, and optimise use of resources to provide services to people in their community. In a more resource-constrained world, with citizen expectations of service unchanged, local government will have to be creative.

Perhaps a new O/S is what we need in a post-Coronavirus world.