Innovation is key to breaking government's age-old trade-offs

Agencies often find themselves facing conflicting goals, but a combination of innovation, technological advancement and management techniques can break the deadlock.

Shutterstock image: right tool, wrong application.

The warmth of mittens or the dexterity of gloves? Staying up late to binge-watch your favorite Netflix show or getting a good night's rest for your big presentation the next morning? The health benefits of kale or the deliciousness of chocolate cake? These are just a few examples of trade-offs or opposing choices that we all encounter, but really wish we didn't have to.

Government is no exception to this. It often finds itself facing conflicting goals that have far more serious implications than the examples above: equity or economic growth; tighter budgets or better service to citizens; affordable healthcare or high-quality healthcare.

Most of these tradeoffs are usually a consequence of limited resources -- there's only a finite amount of time, money or space available. But today a combination of innovation, technological advancement and management techniques have made it possible to do more with the same finite resources, shattering age-old tradeoffs in government. Here are three tradeoffs innovation can break in government today:

#1. Higher protection/compliance vs. lower regulatory burden

Cutting regulatory burdens and maintaining protections may seem like contradictory objectives, but both can be achieved by making regulatory transactions (such as passing inspection or demonstrating compliance) as painless as possible. By skillfully combining new digital technologies with innovative techniques such as customer experience journey mapping, government agencies could significantly cut red-tape costs while maintaining protections.

Consider what Boston has done to streamline its permit system. Through a hackathon, the city created a tool to identify a project's address on record, an app that explains which permits a project needs, and a program to track applications through the permit process. Boston also unveiled a new online permit system that allows users to apply for multiple permits at once, organize permits by project, and include multiple people -- say, a contractor and a homeowner -- on the account. The effort has yielded significant results: Inspectional Services issued 12,500 more permits in the first year of reform than in the previous year; average review time for long-form permits was cut by five days, or 20 percent; and, most importantly, the hours contractors spent waiting have been drastically reduced.

#2. Better service vs. lower costs

In the private sector, we've seen the service/cost trade-off broken time and time again -- often through innovative use of digital technologies. Government also has the potential to radically improve services, not by expanding budgets but through innovation and better deployment of existing resources.

Consider one of government's perennial challenges -- onerous paperwork burdens. In 2017, just as in 1917, government employees spend huge amounts of time on paperwork. A recent survey of state and local officials found that 53 percent had trouble getting their work done in a 35–40-hour week due to excessive paperwork burdens. At the federal level, research indicates simply documenting and recording information consumes half a billion staff hours each year at a cost of more than $16 billion.

Hiring more employees could reduce backlogs caused by paperwork burdens, but would do so at a higher cost to taxpayers. However, modern automation enabled by robotic process automation and artificial intelligence can assume the burden of low-value paperwork and allow frontline employees to provide more service on mission-focused work without the need to add staff. In fact, we estimate the federal government could free up more than 1.3 billion labor hours by automating tedious, manual activities that today's machines can easily handle.

#3: Greater security vs. greater convenience

The traditional approach to promoting security is to make people jump through qualifying hoops before access is granted. Those hoops may be physical, like the lines and inspection that must be traversed to gain access to airport flight gates. They may be digital, like the all-too-familiar password requirements for "at least one lowercase and uppercase alphabetic character, at least one number, and at least one symbol."

Risk modeling, however, presents a way to achieve security without making the process painful for participants. Using data analytics, it's possible to apply stricter security and screening measures to identify certain individuals (or packages) as high risk, and expedite the process for those that are low risk who have been pre-screened.

The Transportation Security Administration's "PreCheck" program breaks the trade-off between security and convenience by simultaneously improving both. PreCheck allows passengers who pass a background check to use their own more-rapid airport security lines. Travelers voluntarily provide data, which when combined with other layers of security allows TSA to direct more screening resources to higher-risk passengers and deliver on its mission of protecting the nation's transportation systems. The additional data helps enhance security while also reducing the time customers spend waiting in security lineups.

Ultimately, the first step to dealing with tradeoffs involves changing one thing: your mindset. Viewing the tradeoff as a challenge to be overcome through innovation, rather than an immovable constraint, along with the right set of tools can redraw the relationship between competing options. The result -- at least on occasion -- is a way to have your cake and eat it too.

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