A Microsoft approach to thinking about lean government

In entrepreneurship, the idea of a "lean startup" has caught on like a firestorm. Inspired by Eric Ries' book of the same name, lessons about doing more with less and launching "minimum viable products" are being consumed by founders in Silicon Valley and around the world.

Now these lean principles have entered pop culture to some degree and are popping up in some unusual places, even in more traditional industries like book publishing and government (the latter of whose budgets you may not associate the word "lean" with). The modern reality of government spending, however, is one in which employees who specialize in being more agile and adaptive to changing external conditions, doing more with less, and launching things before they are fully baked is being rewarded.

This new reality is reflected in the Microsoft Federal Executive Forum event entitled "Real Impact for a Lean & Modern Public Sector," being held today at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington, DC. The event will be attended by over 100 Federal executives in addition to Microsoft employees and business partners such as NetApp, Dell, and Accenture, and focus on IT topics as diverse as social software, big data, and cybersecurity.

The event will be keynoted by Greg Myers, the VP of Federal for Microsoft.

I can't give away the great content that will be presented to Forum attendees, but what I can do is pose the question, How does one even begin to think about what "lean government" means? To many, this may still be a somewhat radical concept. Or perhaps you understand the basic concepts but aren't sure they apply to your particular line of business.

Imagine that your government agency, or your city or county perhaps, is a startup. You have your mission(s) and employees, but for the most part, you don't yet have things like buildings, computers, and the like. The tech stuff. Where would you begin thinking about how to fulfill your mission if you didn't have an organizational legacy? Here are a few thoughts.

Lean working

It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that the government owns a lot of infrastructure, including buildings. A lot of buildings. About 14,000 extra buildings owned by the Federal government alone, which they are currently trying to sell. The government also owns all matter of other infrastructure -- vans, cars, all kinds of things.

Startups don't tend to own lots of things. When they start, employees typically work in a highly mobile fashion, using laptops and smartphones, from whereever they can. A successful startup may graduate from working at home and in coffeeshops to working in a co-working space or a startup incubator, to then finally lease some of their own private business offices.

A lean government would have to own offices and buildings of course, but would embrace telework, mobile work, and other flexible approaches that take advantage of cloud, mobile, and social technologies and also allow for a flexible lifestyle, while also perhaps saving money. Imagine if a local government had many non-public-facing workers work from home or wherever they want one day a week, and on that day they turn off the lights, the heat/air, power down computers, and so on?

Lean software

Despite their general proliferation, a typical citizen interacting with the government doesn't use apps. To pay student loans, you go to a website. To get tax forms, you download a PDF document. You get the idea. There's no question that governments are innovating and making their information more accessible and interactive, but a lot of the reasons we do things the way we do when we interact with the government is because of legacy systems (e.g., there's no particular reason paying taxes needs to look like a Form 1040 that you pick up at a local library or download in PDF format). 

And yet, a host of government agencies and startup companies working in the public sector space are experimenting with and deploying apps.Take for example, the new eBriefing app from MetroStar Systems in Virginia. It's a secure digital publishing solution for enterprises, with which you can build a briefing book and publish it to an internal bookstore. Ask yourself: Would a startup company have employees lug around giant three-ring binders to brief their CEO?

Lean communications

Government employees communicate in all the ways you would expect -- scheduled in-person meetings, phone calls at designated times, 24/7 email. So do the people at most any large organization. But startup companies operate a bit differently. Organized meetings give way to spontaneous conversations. Email gives way to IM. Their goal tends to be having very agile communications that obtain answers as quickly as possible and involve the fewest obstructions possible.

How can that type of startup communications thinking be applied to governments? Enterprise social media like Yammer gets you a long way toward that goal -- It can be made secure and definitively tied to an employees' identity. Users can upload documents, talk in a secure environment, and even use it from their mobile devices. Conversations on a platform like Yammer can be much more open and fluid than the same conversation occurring via an email thread, and it's also easier to follow.

But even the very popular Yammer has its limits. That's where unified communications software like Microsoft's Lync comes in. Lync is secure and tied to enterprise identities, and it can seemingly do anything: IM, phone conference calls, video conferences, desktop sharing, and what we call "presence" - the notion that based on a "red light-green light" toggle next to someone's name/photo, other employees can tell if someone is available, busy, away, and other statuses. I used Lync to give a webinar yesterday, where I spoke over the phone while sharing Powerpoint slides on my desktop with the group, and they were able to IM with each other during the presentation.

These three examples aren't exhaustive, but they are scenarios describing how "lean startup" thinking can be applied to governments. Governments will never literally operate like startup companies, nor should they. But the lessons of lean startup thinking can in many ways be applied to public sector missions when creative thinking, some modest risk taking, and the latest technologies come together into a mission plan.

If you're reading this, you're probably not at Microsoft's Federal Executive Forum. That's okay. On April 24-25, Microsoft is co-sponsoring (along with American City & County) the Lean Government Virtual Summit -- Enabling Modern, Mobile, and Efficient Government. You can get more details about it and register to attend here.


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