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Voices Social innovation

Government Innovation: Helping Citizens….cut through the red tape

Eric Braverman McKinsey & Company

Eric Braverman is a partner in McKinsey’s Washington, D.C., office and leader  of  its Public Sector Practice. Named by Fortune as one of the 40 under 40 most influential leaders in business worldwide in 2010, Eric advises government leaders on the transformation of complex institutions.

Recently,  John went to the department of Motor vehicles (dMv) to get a driver’s license. first, he waited outside in the rain for three hours for an appointment. then he was asked to go away and come back with new paperwork. When he was finally able to take his driving test, the official made some questionable calls but eventually told John he passed. John left, still without his license. Getting it would take another week or two of waiting before it came in the mail. Jane, on the other hand, arrived at the DMV at her scheduled time and was immediately taken to a course where an official waited. The car she took the test in was equipped with a computer to help evaluate her driving.  When Jane passed, her score was automatically transmitted to the DMV building, which had Jane’s license printed and ready for her by the time she got to the counter.  The entire venture, start to finish, took her one hour.

Pop quiz: Who went to the DMV in a US state and who went to the DMV in a former Soviet republic—John or Jane?

It’s not a trick question. All around the world, governments of every size are facing the same urgent imperative: to meet an ever-rising demand for services in an era of severely constrained resources. Leaders everywhere want to know: how do we do more with less? The emerging answer—from some unlikely places—is bold, rapid management innovation.

Jane (not her real name) is a young woman from the country of Georgia, and her story should inspire us to believe that government innovation can make a real difference in improving the lives of citizens everywhere. (I’ve been John, by the way, as have, I suspect, many US readers.)

For the last six months, some colleagues and I have been traveling the world asking questions about government innovation. Does it exist? Does it make a difference? We’ve met with government leaders and their customers—everyday citizens, businesses, and civil-society organizations—in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. And what we’ve found is surprising.

In a world where social problems and the government bureaucracies designed to solve them are each getting more complex, we are ever so faintly seeing the beginning of a trend toward simplification. Call it the rise of the personal government “ambassador,” a person or service put in place to bridge the gap between the government and its citizens. It’s an idea still being born, not yet matured. But you can see it in brick and mortar, in the government “one-stop shops” that are popping up in cities around the world where citizens can access many services of government in one place, just as you can see it  in an array of new services delivered by computer or through a remote case worker.

The Republic of Georgia provides a good example of the brick-and-mortar approach to integrated service delivery. The Batumi Public Service Hall, for example, is a glass structure with blonde-wood counters and a play area for children. The center offers access to 250 different government services, from birth certificates to divorce papers. Uniformed greeters known as “consultants” welcome arrivals and direct traffic: simple requests to self-serve computers; more complex cases to staffed desks. Not so long ago, it would take a visit to nine government institutions (and 35 documents, one month’s time, and $150 in informal “fees”) to register a business. Today, it takes one visit to the Public Service Hall, four days, and $29.

Not all of the new do-it-yourself facilities are in fancy buildings with focus-group-tested color schemes. Brazil, for example, has attempted to make it easier for citizens to monitor what their government is doing by posting daily reports of government spending online. Not only have citizen “hackers” used the information to create applications to help everyday people learn where their money goes—prompting more than a few firings of officials for fraud or abuse—but also roving bands of citizens have been checking up on government projects and posting videos of what they find on the Internet. Indonesia, similarly, is piloting a new program to solicit feedback from citizens on government projects and important public issues. People can send their messages by camera phone or text message directly to the situation room of the president. When fully operational, the system will allow government to better verify the delivery of public services.

Do these specific innovations work perfectly? Of course not. Will some of them fade away or evolve over time as lived experience creates better information about what works and doesn’t? Probably so. Of course there are challenges. For example, one person’s efficiency can be another person’s repression. Action requires political will and the will of the bureaucracy. We did not evaluate the political systems of the countries we visited.

Another universal challenge is the challenge of scale. How can governments learn what others are doing and test strategies for scaling the innovations that work? Transaction costs for governments seeking this information are too high. They need a low cost mechanism for sharing information on what works. Governments cannot afford to send a delegation across the sea for two weeks every time they want to learn something new.

Still, these early examples are encouraging and give an inkling of the potential: improved productivity, renewed economic growth, better service for everyday people like us. Government leaders all around the world are talking about innovations that can help transform society. That should be good news for all  of us.

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