Small Steps Toward Change: Innovating in the Public Sector

The public sector is one of the toughest places to drive big change. But even small, simple steps can make progress at an organizational level.

by Troy Henry

Earlier this week, while at COVITS, I sat in a great case study presented by the City of Hampton and Fairfax County regarding Customer Engagement. Although at SingleStone we bring a customer experience focus to each and every project we do, and we have worked with numerous state and local agencies, it was the first time I really pondered the differences in customer expectations between the public and private sector.

High rise building

Now don’t get me wrong, as a citizen (and thus, taxpayer) of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I want and expect government to spend my money wisely and effectively, but even with that said, it feels different. We, as a public, seem to have different standards. Here are some examples:

  • We want our government agencies and organizations to offer top-level products and services, yet this often takes investment in innovation, which could also yield waste.  We generally do not accept that.
  • Due to the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act, we can submit FOIA requests to any governmental body, to provide complete and comprehensive documentation on a given situation. When dealing with a private-sector company (bank, utility, retail, etc.), maybe even as a shareholder, would this type of request even cross your mind? I realize they are not bound by the same guidelines/laws, but still…
  • We expect speedy and error-free transaction handling of our government service providers, yet when we know they are operating on tight budgets and may require higher operating costs to function at that level, we freak-out and vehemently oppose tax hikes to fund these endeavors.
  • In the heat of an emergency situation, we expect dissemination of information to be real-time, yet 100% accurate. Have you ever stopped to think about how much misinformation comes out of the private sector/media? Also worth noting is that during these troubling times, the public-sector employees are the ones working to keep us safe, while the majority of the private sector is watching it all unfold in the comfort of their own homes.
  • When embarking on a big project, government agencies often have public hearings and/or accessible forums to solicit citizen input and opinions. Now this is a little bit of a crazy analogy, but let’s assume you own shares of a Technology Company (almost like a tax-payer for a public agency, right?). Would you expect them to solicit your feedback and have a meeting on the design of their next gadget? No, because you trust their expertise and subject matter knowledge.

Please don’t think for one second that I want government to get a “free-pass,” because I don’t. But as I mentioned above, we have completely different expectations of government than we do of the private sector. I also understand that, unlike the private sector, the government has a bit of a “captive consumer,” and competition generally does not exist.

So why do we act this way?  The only justification is, well, because we can. Those same government agencies that we are so quick to crucify in social media, have also afforded us with the opportunity to do just that. And when we burden them with complaints, FOIA requests, social media posts, etc., we also seem to forget that it takes money to pay for people to respond.


At the end of the day, like everyone in the private sector, government employees wake-up, shower for work (hopefully), kiss their loved ones good bye for the day, and head into the office trying to make a difference and do their job well.  And so, before we demand behavior or services different or better than the private sector, remember that government employees are people – just like you and me!

And as for public-sector employees, what can you do about this?

This week at COVITS, there was a lot of talk about the combination of courage and innovation. Rarely do you have one without the other. This is a perspective we all need to bring into the work we do each day—government included. Think of the issues that plague you and your teams, and become part of the solution, rather than propagating the problem. Have courage to challenge yourself, your teams and your leadership with new ideas. This could be a multitude of things, but for example, how about simple ways to make your interactions with customers easier? Or maybe you’d love to help accelerate the speed of implementing software solutions, i.e. Agile in Government?

While these ideas could span a vast array of departments and functions, those are just two options for you to think about. They may seem daunting and too big to start, but one small step at a time is incredibly valuable. Take five minutes a day to act on this idea, and after a short time, look back, and you will be so much further from the onset of the idea. Your idea will start to become a reality, which is motivating, and will inherently create organic momentum, even on an organizational level. This little seed then becomes a freight train, and the only outcome will be positive change. We’ve seen it happen in our work with clients, and so can you.

Would you like to talk about ways to better engage with your customers or incorporate new technology to improve efficiency? I’d love to talk with you about your challenges. Drop me a line. 

Troy Henry
Troy Henry
Managing Consultant
Contact Troy