Public policy gets all the attention, but operations can make or break a policy
“Policy debates rarely consider service delivery. Worse, policy decisions often create complexity that makes it harder to digitize services and implementation more difficult,” the author writes. Photo illustration by Getty Images.
A former colleague recently recommended I read “Re-Coding America,” by Jennifer Pahlka. Pahlka is the founder of Code for America, a non-profit that aims to help all levels of government make it easier for people to use government services. Pahlka also spent several years working in California state government and the federal government.
As the title suggests, “Re-Coding America” focuses on IT. But Pahlka brings deep insight into the overall challenges and barriers to smart and efficient government operations, particularly the delivery of services to the public. I spent 38 years in Minnesota state government, and her insights resonated with me, as they had with my colleague.
One of Pahlka’s insights is that in government, “policy is king.” Policy work has prestige; it’s where leadership and elected officials spend their time and energy. Operations is what you do when the policy is established: Turn it over to “the mechanicals” (her term for operations staff) to implement and make it work.
I couldn’t agree more. Over the latter part of my career, I often talked with younger colleagues in state government looking for advice on advancing their careers. I would invariably tell them some version of this: Get involved in legislative and policy work. Why? Because that’s what’s valued by leadership. If you want to advance your career, focus on policy.
We spend huge amounts of time and energy debating and analyzing relatively small policy changes throughout the policy process. This involves legislators, administration and agency leaders, legislative and agency staff, advocates, provider and trade groups and a host of others. Depending on the issue, it may also be covered and debated in the media as well.
What happens after the bill is passed? That’s not usually news.
What does make the news is botched implementation — think MNsure and MNLARS. These are often framed as IT failures, but that framing ignores the underlying issues that create such failures.
The delivery of government services and IT are not separate domains. All services are technology-dependent, and if government is doing its job right, digital service delivery would be the norm. Unfortunately, that’s still a work in progress.
What’s needed, Pahlka argues, is a tighter connection between policy and operations; a relationship that focuses first and foremost on the goal of the policy and the people impacted by the policy. Putting the people at the center drives us to balance policy and service delivery — to focus on what most benefits the people.
The idea is to design policies with service delivery in mind; to adopt policies that are easy to implement and will be easy for people to use. That might mean trading off some specific policy goals with ease of implementation and access for consumers. For example: Designing a policy that will be easy to digitize, or to integrate into existing IT systems and business processes at the state or local level.
Yet our policy debates rarely consider service delivery. Worse, policy decisions often create complexity that makes it harder to digitize services and implementation more difficult. This can be compounded by political pressure on implementation timelines — everyone wants new programs to start as soon as possible.
The problem rolls down to the people at the bottom: the intended beneficiaries of the service, the very people we should be trying to help. Too often, our lofty policy goals are undermined by the frustrations and roadblocks consumers experience trying to use the services.
Responsibility to fix this problem starts with the administrative agencies. They initiate many of the policy proposals that end up at the Legislature, and they are responsible for operating the programs.
The Department of Human Services, working with MNIT, has a nascent effort in this direction called Service Delivery Transformation. It is not easy work; agencies value policy over operations as well, and changing that culture is hard. It also requires a new level of engagement with counties and tribes that deliver most services.
Responsibility also lies with the elected officials who make policy. This includes supporting proposals to simplify service delivery, and avoiding policies that make service delivery more complicated. I’ve found legislators receptive to these discussions, although price tag is a sensitivity. That can be a challenge in human services, where sometimes complex policies serve to keep enrollments or costs down.
The bigger challenge for elected officials is the policy process itself. The timelines for policy development are usually very short: A compressed decision-making process within the administration, followed by a legislative session that crams most of the work into a few weeks.
The time crunch breeds last-second policy changes made to satisfy a constituency or meet a budget target. There is often no consideration of operational challenges that can result. I can’t count how many times in my career I heard some variation of this helpful note: “Just figure it out.”
None of this is easy, but it starts with awareness. Leadership from agencies and counties is critical. Legislators can’t be experts in all the complexity involved in delivering human services. But they are usually willing to listen, and real conversations that recognize service delivery as part of effective policy making would be a good start.
We need to move beyond “Just figure it out.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.