Service Design for Government
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Photo of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington D.C. MyVA is a customer-experience focused government service strategy.

Is MyVA the Future of Government Service Strategy?

Since its release this week, I have been absorbing and digesting the MyVA Integrated Plan published by the Department of Veterans Affairs. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it is the government service strategy for the transformation of VA to become more veteran-driven and ensure the veteran experience is predictable, consistent, and easy.

The MyVA Task Force has accomplished a lot since it was chartered just last year and the document does a nice job of bringing together all of the moving parts in an organization as big as VA. Here are a few highlights that stood out to me as evidence of progress:

VA took a look in the mirror

Using Secretary McDonald’s model for a high performing organization, the MyVA Task Force assessed the current state of the organization – successful outcomes and blemishes included. They looked at the operations, budget, and political environment in the context of their strategy to really understand the constraints they need work within going forward. This upfront transparency will go along way in communicating honestly with VA stakeholders.

VA is translating their government service strategy vision into action

The Plan translates VA’s customer-centric vision into action through five priorities,  Veteran Experience, Employee Experience, Support Service Excellence, Performance Improvement, and Strategic Partnerships. Each priority is supported by several initiatives focused on improving specific aspects of VA – this provides a clear thread between their vision and the actions being taken.

VA is holding themselves accountable

In the Plan, they highlight specific, measurable target outcomes. They talk explicitly about what changes to look for – a single customer-facing website, expanded training and leadership development for employees, and vastly improved internal support services – as evidence of change.

There is one statement, however, that rubbed me the wrong way. It comes in the final paragraph:

“If we do our jobs well, Veterans won’t think much about what we’ve done or how we’ve done it. They will just know they’re receiving some of the best health care anywhere in the world. They’ll know it didn’t take too long to apply for and receive their deserved benefits. They’ll enjoy the home we helped them to finance. Their lives will be richer because of educational opportunities and community connections VA helped to create. And their families will know they’ve been given the utmost respect and final honors when laid to rest.”

VA is selling themselves short, especially with the first sentence. Perhaps as they begin achieving success, the MyVA team will readjust their aim with their government service strategy so that Veterans will ultimately look to VA as the preferred service provider for healthcare, benefits, and memorial services. They will see the service quality they receive as honoring their decision to serve in the armed forces. And they will see all 300,000+ VA employees as advocates in their corner as they transition into civilian life.

Decades from now, I hope we look back and see this initial effort at VA as transformational for government writ
large. As VA learns, adapts, and succeeds, it will become the framework for how we design, implement, and manage government services in the future. Government agencies will look to customer experience as a way to ground their organizational strategies, engage their employees, and better accomplish their mission.

seeing through the noise to discover government's service portfolio

To Improve Your Team’s Performance, Start with Experience

In our view of the world, Customer Experience is the starting point for improving the performance of services. Adjust the angle of your head slightly and the concepts, tools, and methods being used to design better services can also be applied to improving business functions, programs, and operating units. Positioning yourself as a service provider immediately transforms why, what, and how you go about your work.

Here are three ideas to get you started.

Find Your Customers

Services only exist when there is a customer so the first step is to seek out the customer – the people who receive the benefit of the service. It seems like a simple enough concept, until it’s not… in a simple consumer service transaction, the customer is the person who pays for the service.  As transactions become more complex, the term customer can be confused with words like “stakeholder,” “management,” “buyer,’ or “oversight committee.” The ultimate goal here is to deliver services that provide real value to customers – the people who receive the benefit of the service – despite all other distractions.

See Services Where Others See “Business as Usual”

Take a look at the image below; 3D stereograph posters like this were once littered across shopping malls. They enticed shoppers to stop and look; separating by-passers into those who could “see” and those would keep walking because they tried before and it wouldn’t work. I fall into the latter category, but the idea is that you stare at the image deep enough and long enough and a second image will appear out of the clutter – usually a sailboat or a pod of jumping dolphins.

In many cases, looking for services in established organizations can be very similar to seeing the sailboat. It takes some practice at first, but once you get it, it is even harder to unsee it. Government Agencies and Businesses are functionally organized around the work being done, like Operations, Marketing, Finance, and IT. Service Designers must be able to see through these structures and pick out the services that are delivering real value to customers, i.e. outcomes. These are easy to find when a customer buys something – the transaction itself serves as the indicator that there was an exchange of value. It gets more challenging as we dive into the inner workings of organizations – the monthly budget analysis, the provisioning of services for a new customer, or the installation of a new network drop. Each can also be viewed as a service even though no money changes hands. When seeking out services in your organization, look for these 5 attributes:

  1. Intangible – in a pure service, the “thing” of value that is produced is intangible. We often “productize” these things – a dashboard, a report, a legal brief – but the real value is what went into delivering these in the first place.
  2. Inventory – There is none. In a service, the exchange of value happens at the point in time where it is transferred to the customer. The value is perishable in the moment that the service provider transfers their expertise, experience, or insight to their customer.
  3. Inseparable – Just like you cannot have a service without a customer, it is equally impossible to separate the service from the service provider.
  4. Inconsistent – Services are subject to variable demand and are provided on an as-needed basis.
  5. Involvement – There is a certain intimacy involved between the customer and provider where both have the opportunity to influence and customize the outcomes.

Practice applying these filters in your organization and you will quickly see your service portfolios emerge and how well they perform.

Follow the Customer Journey

With both the services and customers accounted for, the next step is to follow the customer journey – the series of decisions and actions that a customer makes from the time they first become aware of your service to the point where they retire it.

As a service designer, taking responsibility for a customer journey may seem overwhelming at first as it will likely the organizational structure. Customer journeys don’t necessarily align with siloed business functions; customers easily move from installation to a technical help desk call to a billing question and expect a consistent service experience throughout. This customer journey exercise often highlights gaps in existing technologies, employee knowledge, and processes in systems that have multiple owners.

Embrace the opportunity to work cross-functionally; the focus on improving customer experience is an invitation to put on your “big hat” and find opportunities to better integrate services that deliver more of the outcomes that matter most to your customer in the ways that are most relevant to them.




capturing customer experience in a service offering

The Experience, an Elusive Attribute of Service Performance

Delivering capability “As A Service” is making a profound impact on the service sector, forcing us to think differently about what and how services are conceived, designed, delivered, and managed. This impact presents itself in the fundamental way that we define the value of a service. Our current definition – based largely on its use and function – ignores the perceived value that customers place on the experience. This is despite a growing mountain of data that tells us otherwise.

Let’s dig a little deeper into how we determine the value of a service. The highly regarded framework for IT service management, IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), provides a commonly accepted definition. This definition determines the value of a service around two key performance attributes – Utility and Warranty:

Fit for Use – Utility. Whether a service has utility is determined by whether it solves a customer’s problem or removes a constraint. It seems simple enough. If I am yearning for a warm drink in the middle of winter and someone offers to make me a hot chocolate – the solution has utility. Likewise, if you want to purchase a home but do not have the cash on hand, a bank can remove this constraint with a loan.

Fit for Purpose – Warranty. Beyond solving the customer’s problem, the value of a service is also measured for warranty – or fit for purpose. These attributes typically include availability, continuity, security, and capacity (enough to meet the demand). The customer defines these performance targets based on their desired quality and perceived risk. For example, the last customer in the hot chocolate line expects that the barista has sufficient ingredients on hand to serve everyone in line; the bank providing your home loan might stay open late or on weekends to better accommodate the schedules of full-time workers.

These two attributes – Utility and Warranty – clearly contribute to customer’s perception of value and provide a basis to compare the offerings among similar service providers. But Utility and Warranty seem to determine “what” the optimal technical solution is, but largely ignore “how” the solution is delivered (I say “largely ignore” here because an attribute such as availability may refer to providing the service at a specific time and place or through a specific communication channel). Our current definition of value is incomplete.

To make this point, consider a highly competitive market like the airlines where companies continually battle for market share. After a few generations, all the solutions begin to look similar – coach class feels equally cramped on every flight, there is some variation in coverage area, and maybe slight variations between pretzels or trail mix. But for the most part, they are the same. Where utility and warranty are being commoditized, some air travel providers opt to compete on experience – think of the no frills attitude of Southwest or jetBlue compared with the metropolitan tech savvy feel of Virgin Atlantic or Hawaiian Airlines’ Aloha greetings.

According to several studies, anywhere between 50-85% of customers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience.

Fit for Experience. As the utility and warranty of services become more similar, Customer Experience plays a bigger role in customers’ perceptions of value. To be clear, the “Experience” we are talking about here goes beyond the user experience (UX/UI) of your website (or, for that matter, any one technology channel). This “Experience” is the sum of all interactions that a customer has with a particular provider across all delivery channels throughout the lifetime of that relationship. Providing an authentic customer experience certainly impacts the “what” of a particular solution and also focuses on “how” the service is being delivered as customers learn about, narrow, select, consume, and retire a service.

Experience is a new frontier for differentiation and provides the opportunity to impact customers in profound ways. It does not exist in vacuum: Experience relies on both Utility and Warranty as a foundation to provide a durable competitive advantage. This means that we need to pay attention to all three of these performance attributes if we are to sustain truly exceptional services. Acknowledging Experience as something that customers value in concert with Utility and Warranty is a first step. We need better ways of measuring experience and tying it to customer behavior and customer outcomes so that we can better understand its contribution.

team-based approach to building a service culture

3 Ways to Grow a Service-Oriented Team

People working in government and nonprofits often refer to a personal calling to serve the public good. Their sense of purpose can be a source of energy for their peers and their customers cannot help but feel their enthusiasm for the mission. But even the most passionate public servant has an occasional bad day – it is human nature and most people are willing to give us a pass when we stressed or distracted.

Unfortunately, the service itself doesn’t get the same courtesy. Customers expect service quality to be maintained and the experience to be consistent despite the occasional system outage, process glitch, or failure of personality. Services have to systematically overcome these variables to consistently provide a relevant customer experience. As a service provider, here are three ways to develop a service-oriented mindset:

  1. Find the Services, Find the Customers. The first step of a services mindset begins with the customers; identify what problem you solve for them and how they interact with your team to solve that problem. Both the solution and the interactions are part of your service portfolio. Some of these services are easily recognizable – like a haircut or table service at a restaurant – but some can be tricky. Business support functions like the Finance Department, Human Relations, and the CIO’s office can also be viewed through a services lens. Unlike consumer services, internal customers don’t typically pay with money but they do pay with their time. Scheduling a meeting to discuss next year’s budget, providing a brown bag session to present the impact of new hiring policy, or waiting for a call back from a technical expert are all examples of services that contribute to an internal customer experience.
  2. Optimize Services Around Customer Needs. Once the services have been named, engage customers to better understand what is important to them – do they care more about accuracy or speed in the weekly report, are the templates provided helpful in crafting new job descriptions, what was the impact of the last system outage on their productivity. This initial feedback can go a long way, but look for opportunities to formally measure the performance of your services against these attributes. In a consumer service, service quality is captured in a contract document called Service Level Agreement; while it may not make sense in your organization to take it this far, it is worthwhile to communicate to your customers that your performance objectives are focused on the things they care about.
  3. Build Service into the Culture. Shifting culture is never easy, but there are several things that leaders can do to change the tone of the conversation with their employees. First, involve them in the process we have outlined above, encouraging them to think about the services they personally provide and those they contribute to on the team. Expose them to new ideas and techniques for how to approach a customer conversation with empathy or how to constructively accept feedback. Teach them how to measure their service portfolio against customer performance attributes. Model the behavior yourself; emphasizing that the customer is always in the forefront of your mind. When pitching a new project, include the expected customer impact in your scope statement. When being briefed on an issue, first ask about the impact to the customer and how the customer is being taken care of in the interim before digging into the details of the problem. Each of these small actions can have a big impact when repeated consistently.

These relatively simple exercises will take some time up front but can have an immediate impact. We are currently mentoring a Support Department Head of a medium-sized organization responsible for IT services, acquisition and contracting, and human relations. While a little nervous about exposing some of her team’s shortcomings at first, she has found her customers are receptive to offering feedback and employees are energized about the opportunity to think more explicitly about serving customer needs.

exploring what

Services “As a Service”

Delivering capability “As A Service” has significant potential to impact the service sector but has minimal adoption outside of the Technology industry. We explore the relevant themes (minus the IT jargon) to see the broader impact of an “As a Service” model and discover how this focus enables a shift from doing work to delivering outcomes.

Way back in 2008, it seemed everyone in the tech sector was rushing to coin the next great cloud computing offering – Software As A Service (SaaS), Infrastructure As A Service (IaaS), Platform As A Service (PaaS), Everything As A Service (XaaS). As the term has evolved, something delivered “As a Service” has come to mean something very specific; different from just saying “We deliver X,Y, or Z services”. Delivering software services could mean any number of things related to the design, operations, and management of software but delivering “Software As A Service” describes a service model that has a distinct value proposition.

Introducing Lawn Care as a Service (LCAAS)

This relatively simple concept can make a significant impact on a customer, the service provider, and even the industry. Let’s use Lawn Care to illustrate the broader application of the “As a Service” concept. If a customer purchases “Lawn Care Services” in the traditional sense, he expects to negotiate with his service provider about how often the grass should be mowed. The service provider expects to meet her obligation by cutting according to the prescribed schedule. In this type of arrangement, if the lawn dies, the service provider has little, if any, ownership of the problem as long as she cuts the grass according to the schedule everyone agreed on. Likewise, other competitors in the market have trouble distinguishing themselves beyond price.

But there is a new entrant looking to disrupt the market and begins to offer “Lawn Care As a Service“; she resets her customers performance expectations and provides an entirely unique experience. Instead of discussing which day of the week to mow, she tells her customer he should expect to pull into his driveway every day and be greeted by a healthy lawn. In addition to cutting the the grass to an appropriate height, she also includes complementary services that contribute to maintaining a vibrant green color, minimizing the presence of weeds or the infestation of certain pests. These included services may include watering, fertilizing, bug control; they are turned on or off as needed in order to produce the outcome for the customer.

The customer pays for the outcome of the service (healthy grass and curb appeal) within specified performance parameters. As long as that outcome is met, he doesn’t need to think about how many people were onsite cutting the lawn, whether they used a weed whacker or a push mower, or whether the chemical formulation for the fertilizer was better suited to Spring or Summer. The parameters create mutually agreeable tolerances which both customer and provider are comfortable with. They may help reduce the customers’ risk or give the service provider some freedom to optimize her operations. In this example they may require the service provider to warrant that all people who visit his home are covered under her insurance policy and wear appropriate safety equipment or that the watering schedule will adhere to the county’s water conservation guidelines. And in exchange for this added peace of mind, the customer is willing to pay a premium.

An “As a Service” model provides a platform for service innovation

Oriented towards an “As a Service” model, providers can more accurately describe a portfolio of capabilities in terms of the problem it solves (utility), the terms & conditions of its performance (warranty), its costs, and its value. Services are thought of as modular and self-contained units of capability and have everything they need to produce a specified outcome and communicate with its peers in the value chain. These have significant impact to the business of services in the following ways:

Optimize the Business Model. As service providers think about delivering their capability “As a Service”, they recognize the core services needed for their business model to thrive. Likewise, they identify those services that could be potentially provided by a partner or specialist. They key in on overlapping capabilities, redundancies, and even logical gaps in how their service portfolio is being delivered today. Alternatives can be evaluated strategically in terms of how they impact the competitive position of the business in the market.

Fine Tuned Performance Control. Because of the way the services are segmented and described in the first place, service providers have an immediate understanding of the mechanics, the interactions, and the contribution to the bottom line of each service at the time of launch. Services assembled in this way provide agility and responsiveness that corresponds with changes in customer demand.

Business Insight. Services are defined in terms of both their value and cost structure, so business leaders have immediate understanding of the expected contribution to the organization’s bottom line. They can create an entirely new capability by linking services together in new and interesting ways and have an understanding of its expected financial performance.

Platform for Innovation. Finally, “As A Service” provides a tremendous new platform for differentiation and competitive advantage. As service offerings become more and more commoditized, understanding and designing services around a unique customer experience can be a source of pure innovation. The “As a Service” model forces providers to think in customer terms, design the services that best suit existing and prospective customers, and clearly communicate the customer outcomes fulfilled by the services.

improving patient experience is key to improving healthcare

3 Ways to Improve Healthcare Outcomes by Following the Patient Experience

Consider all the touchpoints between a patient and a hospital for a single doctor visit – scheduling the appointment, receiving an appointment reminder, navigating endless hallways, filling out forms and waiting, maybe more waiting, seeing the nurse – then the doctor – then the nurse, then stopping at pharmacy, billing, and insurance. Healthcare professionals and patients likely view these experiences quite differently – what the hospital may view as an efficient workflow to maintain consistent quality of care for hundreds of patients, patients may process as redundant, glitchy, or even careless.

The medical community has long been committed to patient outcomes as the primary metric for measuring quality of care. Patient Experience, however, includes interactions with medical and non-medical staff; all the processes, policies, and business rules; and the digital media and mobile technology they encounter along the way. These concepts of Outcomes & Experience are not mutually exclusive; however the question remains as to the extent to which patient experience can directly influence patient outcomes. Here are three examples of the direct impact of a patient-centered approach.

Improve Satisfaction by 20%. In the highly interactive exchanges among the medical staff and patient, most medical professionals will do anything to make a patient’s stay as comfortable as possible. The challenge for the medical institution becomes how to maintain that same perception of care as the patient moves through the more business-oriented functions of the organization.

Increase Employee Engagement by 20-30%. Patients are keenly sensitive to discontinuity in their experience and have an innate sense for when organizations deliver stove-piped services. When seeking out opportunities to improve, Patient Experience provides a unique vantage point to create a dialogue among stove-piped departments about how to make things better. It offers a lens by which to view the convergence of talent, tools, and technology (regardless of who owns the asset) as they come together at a specific touchpoint to add value for a patient.

Lower Cost to Serve by 15-20%. Despite their intrinsic value, the two points above may be insufficient to convince Administrators to invest in improving the patient experience. This approach makes several strategic and economic contributions – understanding the Patient Experience helps us understand what is really important to patients and, equally, what is not. This enables targeted investments that are tied to business outcomes such as efficient service delivery, workforce productivity, and a more competitive cost structure.

customer experience in government

For the People…Government as a Service Business (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second of a 2-part article.  You may want to start with Part 1 located here

Government is a Service Business

Service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating the outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific cost and risks. When we purchase something “as a service,” we want to directly experience the outcome or benefit without having to worry about the know-how, systems, and processes it takes to deliver it.

To say that government is a services provider is to say that government delivers value to the governed (that is you and me) by facilitating outcomes the governed want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks of undertaking to achieve these outcomes individually or even in small groups. Take National Defense as an example of a government-provided service. Most people will agree that a nation has a much better chance of withstanding a foreign aggressor if it maintains an army than if the people were to rely on the tenacity of individuals or the valiant efforts of small militias. Other examples include the construction of roads and canals, the conduct of diplomacy and foreign affairs, and general enforcement of the laws of the land.

The 5 Government Services

In fact, everything government does can be categorized as one of five types of services.

  • National Services are government services to the nation as a whole, without intent to benefit one group, region, or industry more than another, including regulation that affects more than one industry. National services are the purest sense of government services and we associate them with the missions of the Department of Defense, the Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Citizen Services are provided directly to members of the public or individuals. Examples include Veterans Benefits, Social Security, Federal Student Aid, Pensions, and the DMV.
  • Industry Services are provided for the benefit of specific industries either as a whole or to firms directly, including industry-specific regulation. Examples include the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and much of the Department of Agriculture.
  • Regional Services are provided to or for the benefit of discrete geographic areas. This includes parts or all of multiple States. Examples are the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
  • Intra-governmental Services are provided to other parts of the government. The work of the General Services Administration is the quintessential example of this type of service. Internal or Shared service providers with departments and agencies such as human resources, acquisition or procurement, information technology, and finance are also forms of intra-governmental services.

Call to Action

Service is about delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes. Customers are the recipient of the value delivered by the service — usually, but not necessarily, the ones who pay for a service. A family goes out to dinner, they are the restaurant’s customers; you buy a new pair of shoes at the mall, you are the shoe store’s customer; a homeless woman receives shelter and meals from a donor-funded organization, the woman — as opposed to the donors — is the organization’s customer.

While these examples are seemingly straightforward, this concept can get lost in the day-to-day operations of a service organization. Customers are a discrete subset of their stakeholders, but at times these other stakeholders have more direct influence, control, or presence which can sometimes distract us from the needs of the consumers. For this reason, it is critical to build a customer-driven mindset into the culture of the organization and integrate it systemically into the core operations of the service. In addition to being good for customers, it also renews the sense of purpose that likely called employees to public service in the first place. Service business philosophy permeates all aspects of program management.

In our practice, we identified nearly a dozen key aspects of a government services where a customer-focused shift can significantly improve overall program performance. This means that solutions to improve your organization’s customer experience will also have a direct impact on your mission’s bottom line — lower costs, more efficient processes, higher employee productivity. Look closely and you will find there is a role for your customers in nearly every aspect of your business.

Not understanding that the mission is always to do something for someone also has consequences. Opportunities to grow on what government does well or eliminate waste are not detected early enough. Not understanding that every mission has a customer means that public service will only sometimes include customer service and public satisfaction as legitimate metrics. Not thinking of itself as a service business means that improvements in government performance will be isolated and driven by a random cadre of passionate leaders constantly challenged by the long-term average of “good enough for government work.”

It Is Time to Change the Tone of Government Services

Government is fundamentally a service business, at least for nations in which government is founded on the consent of the governed. All who touch government would be decidedly better off if they conceived of government as a service business and operated as such. This extensive ecosystem includes government executives and employees, legislators, judges, suppliers, service providers, consultants, lobbyists, and every citizen.

Once we acknowledge that government is fundamentally the provision of services we will be better able to assess government value and performance. The debates over what missions the government should and shouldn’t undertake will continue as long as the Republic stands, but each time a new service is provisioned or a program funded, it should start out with a clear understanding of who the customers’ are they are expected to serve, what risks are the customers’ trying to avoid, and what outcomes those customers are expecting.

customer experience in government

For the People – Government as a Service Business (Part 1 of 2)

Can you recall your last great service experience? Maybe it was at a restaurant, a hotel, coffee shop, or a dry cleaner. Perhaps the clerk remembered your name or your preference. Or the service was particularly easy to use, available on your schedule at the push of a button. Or instead of being way over the top, maybe it just served its purpose simply without being overly complicated. In any case, the chances are your experience didn’t happen by accident. Rest assured that the service provider knows you have other alternatives and, in order to stay relevant, put considerable energy into understanding their customers’ needs and crafting their services to meet them. Furthermore, they are continually monitoring the customer experience and looking for ways to improve, lest be judged irrelevant and cast to the wayside. As customers, it may be transparent to us during the transaction but the service providers behind really great service experiences are working hard behind the scenes to bring it all together.

We believe that a similar model should apply to government services. Government is a service provider (we believe it is the world’s largest). Government has customers. These customers have a choice whether or not to transact with the government or seek out an alternative solution elsewhere. Customers may not exchange money at each transaction, but we do pay for government services. And yet, when people recall their best service experiences, examples in government hardly ever make the top of the list.

Service is a founding principle

The nature of government as a service business has its roots in the social contract that binds the governed and the governing and legitimizes government. While retracing the origins of the modern state beginning from the Magna Carta would be tedious, it is interesting to note that these concepts are hardwired into our democracy. We can look at the three men who together are the philosophical architects of modern Western government — Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They provide the notion of a social contract between the governed and their government.

  1. In Hobbes’s Leviathan, society occurs when fundamentally selfish individuals come together and cede some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (elevating themselves from the nasty, brutish state of nature by, for example, John giving up his right to kill Chris if Chris does the same for John). A social contract exists when all individuals in a population beneath a sovereign authority cede some of their natural rights for the sake of protection.
  2. Locke’s conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes’s in a number of ways, importantly that it featured a separation of sovereign powers and the consent of the governed is a constant essential for legitimacy (Hobbes allowed for the occasional abuse of power by the sovereign). In the Second Treatise of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the social contract exists to provide civil society — a “neutral judge” that could therefore protect the lives, liberty, and property of those who lived within it. Locke’s social contract was particularly influential for the framers of the American Constitution.
  3. To Rousseau, the social contract derived its legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the direct rule by the people as a whole in law-making. In Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the law, inasmuch as it is voted by the people’s representatives, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but rather its expression; and enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will.

When we bring these schools of thought together, government is formed when citizens collectively agree to cede individual sovereignty to an individual or group (the sovereign) in exchange for the provision of a defined portfolio of services. In the United States, this portfolio of services is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution as, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

While it may seem a little wonky at first, there are some grounding principles here that should matter when we conceive of the services that government provides. Ok, so what? Part 2 of this article describes how a shift in thinking towards a customer-driven strategy could improve the performance of government services.

This is part 1 of a 2-part article.  If you enjoyed it, jump to Part 2 here.

Revisiting the Doctrine of Completed Staff Work

Early in my career, a respected boss and mentor left an article on my desk about the doctrine of “Completed Staff Work.” The author’s thoughts on followership were presented in a memorandum from the early 1940s and present a relatively straightforward concept;when presenting a solution, the only remaining action should be approval or disapproval of the completed action. Your views should be placed before the decision maker in finished form so they can use them to achieve results.
While the language of the original version appears a bit crass (I have included it below for its dramatic effect) by today’s standards, it is largely accepted as appropriate guidance for staff-level professionals and appears to be equally entrenched in both military, government, and commercial best practice. If otherwise inappropriate, the tone certainly reflects the frustration and exasperation of the author, a senior military officer, at the moment he put pen to paper and fits into the hierarchical military structure of World War II.

In my particular case, we were not at war, per se, but I guess my boss was equally frustrated with the amount of additional research and rework that was needed in order for him to make a confident decision. The article was a subtle way of educating the staff into a change in behavior. Unfortunately, the article never sat well with me. Instead of the intended effect, it only served as a reminder of the formal power relationship between a supervisor and subordinate. The challenges we faced were too big for any one of us to handle so we naturally faced them as a team. To suddenly be reminded of my place in the organization was not the kind of empowerment I become accustomed to and I was left feeling that the doctrine was severely out of touch with our reality. But as I reflect back on the experience, I wonder if we can recast the principles of this forlong doctrine to teach the trained initiative that is highly regarded but apply it to today’s team- oriented atmosphere.

Let’s start with the basic premise that a) everyone is busy, b) resources are tight and c) our team trusts us because of our knowledge, experience, and expertise. We were hired to shoulder the responsibilities expected of our position. Even if the decision- making authority formally resides somewhere else on the team, that person or group is relying on us to provide a recommendation for how to proceed as if it were our decision to make. To present a recommendation, the following objectives must first be met:

      • The issues are clearly articulated in a fair, balanced way.
      • Issues are thoroughly analyzed including internal and external influences.
      • Several alternatives have been considered.
      • The solution is complete. It accounts for resources, staffing, time, & risk.
      • The recommendation has been coordinated with stakeholders.
      • The final product is prepared in final form for signature and requires simple approval.


The figure below outlines a process for meeting these objectives in a logical framework. If we expect someone to make a decision, this format helps them understand the full context, complexity, and impact of the decision at hand.



If this process is followed, the goal for the final presentation is to formally walk the decision-maker through the thought process. We are well-equipped to respond to leadership questions and concerns and with practice will learn about the dominant issues facing leadership. Over time, team trust is enhanced as the decision-maker understands the rigor applied to recommendations in this format. The table below can be used to format the recommendation whether through a presentation, white paper, or even a verbal briefing.


This approach contributes to the professional development of junior staff members, as well. It opens an opportunity to understand the context and consequences (both intended and not) of challenges faced by the leadership team. Additionally, it provides unique access to different thought processes of experienced decision-makers – how they weigh various factors, how they perceive the environment, and how they rationalize their decision. Working through solutions in this manner exposes us to the senior leadership thinking that most professionals aspire to and is a great way to demonstrate that ability to the leadership team. There is no better evidence of problem-solving than real decisions applied to challenges faced by the organization.


Original Memo Text

NOTE: The full Completed Staff Work doctrine is presented below. As you read it, don’t let the tone of the memo distract you from the real lessons in leadership that are presented.  The following memorandum has been reproduced countless times by military and civilian organizations since World War II. The original source of the memorandum is unclear. Some reports indicate that the memo was issued in January 1942 by the Provost Marshal General, U.S. Army. It has also been attributed to Brigadier G.E.R. Smith, a member of the Royal Canadian Army, who released it in 1943, while he was serving as Deputy Director of Supplies and Transport, First Canadian Army. It can be found here.


SUBJECT: Completed Staff Work

The doctrine of “completed staff work” will be the doctrine of this office.

  1. “Completed Staff Work” is the study of a problem, and presentation of a solution, by a staff officer, in such form that all that remains to be done on the part of the head of the staff division, or the commander, is to indicate his approval or disapproval of the completed action. The words “completed staff action” are emphasized because the more difficult the problem is the more the tendency is to present the problem to the chief in piecemeal fashion. It is your duty as a staff officer to work out the details. You should not consult your chief in the determination of those details, no matter how perplexing they may be. You may and should consult other staff officers. The product, whether it involves the pronouncement of a new policy or affect an established one, should when presented to the chief for approval or disapproval, be worked out in finished form.
  2. The impulse which often comes to the inexperienced staff officer to ask the chief what to do, recurs more often when the problem is difficult. It is accompanied by a feeling of mental frustration. It is so easy to ask the chief what to do, and it appears so easy if you do not know your job. It is your job to advise your chief what he ought to do, not to ask him what you ought to do. He needs your answers, not questions. Your job is to study, write, restudy and rewrite until you have evolved a single proposed action – the best one of all you have considered. Your chief merely approves or disapproves.
  3. Do not worry your chief with long explanations and memoranda. Writing a memorandum to your chief does not constitute completed staff work, but writing a memorandum for your chief to send to someone else does. Your view should be placed before him in finished form so that he can make them his views by simply signing his name. In most instances, completed staff work results in a single document prepared for the signature of the chief, without accompanying comment. If the proper result is reached, the chief will usually recognize it at once. If he wants comment or explanation, he will ask for it.
  4. The theory of completed staff work does not preclude a “rough draft”, but the rough draft must not be a half-baked idea. It must be completed in every respect except that it lacks the requisite number of copies and need not be neat. But a rough draft must not be used as an excuse for shifting to the chief the burden of formulating the action.
  5. The “completed staff work” theory may result in more work for the staff officer, but it results in more freedom for the chief. This is as it should be. Further, it accomplishes two things:
      1. The chief is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentations.
      2. The staff officer who has a real idea to sell is enabled to more readily to find a market.
  6. When you have finished your “completed staff work” the final test is this: If you were the chief would you be willing to sign the paper you have prepared, and stake your professional reputation on its being right? If the answer is negative, take it back and work it over because it is not yet “completed staff work”
transformation of government services

Services at the Tip of the Spear

We got through “WHY”, now let’s talk “WHAT”

In our last post, we argued that the government is foremost a service organization. While the statement itself may not seem particularly revolutionary, accepting government as services has some important implications.

If you accept government as a service provider then you also accept that governments have customers and those customers have expectations. This implies that customers make a choice whether or not to engage with the services provided by government. As a program manager and leader, it is important to understand these principles whether you provide a public-facing service or an internal service within a specific Department or Agency.  In this article, we survey the aspects of a public sector organization that could benefit from a service-oriented approach.

The operational component of an organization is almost always the best candidate for a service-oriented approach; improvements in core operations are the best way to drive better mission outcomes. This is the tip of the spear, if you will, for organizations and should have the most direct connection with carrying out the core mission of the agency. They benefit from having a clear service definition and direct contact with their customers.

For many (but not all) agencies, the people that support operations carry out their work in the public view – federal law enforcement officers, judges, diplomats, or job safety inspectors – can more easily name the direct beneficiaries of the services they provide. Continually operating in the public eye is not always glorious – it means that bad customer experiences are immediately scrutinized and business processes are continually measured for consistency, reliability, and fairness. For these reasons, the operations that execute the core mission of the organization present tremendous opportunity to focus on how what these services actually are and how they are designed and delivered.

As an operational program manager, you should assess how your organization is structured to deliver a positive service experience in line with your Congressional and Executive charters:

  • Charter. What is the essential mission in our charter and what outcomes (outside the program) will indicate how well we are accomplishing this mission? Everything begins here.
  • Workforce. People are the essence of every service business – they conceive and design the services for customers and they are also the primary means of delivery. Service businesses have substantially different needs from manufacturing or resource extraction businesses because your people must be equipped to interact with one of the most complex systems inexistence – another person! The talent that you are able to attract, develop, promote, and retain are the advocates of your organization’s culture. As operators, these are the truest representations of your brand to your customers and therefore, the recruiting, hiring, training, promoting, and retaining this talent must be grounded in the culture and business needs of the organization.
  • Business Processes. Service-oriented processes should be designed to produce outcomes, not outputs. An outcome has value associated with it that will benefit the end user. This requires that you have an ongoing appreciation for the customers’ needs. Understanding the journey that your customer goes through when they interface with your business processes and noting the points where they are truly delighted and the points where they get frustrated is a key first step.
  • Internal Partnerships. In our next piece, we will dive into some of the enabling activities that work in the background to keep the operations afloat. In these cases, the operator is their customer and you should have the same service expectations as your customers. In this case, manage the relationships with those service providers to ensure that your needs are sufficiently articulated and that you are providing sufficient input to their services to give them the opportunity to serve the broader mission more effectively.
  • Portfolio, Program, and Project Management. Individual successes of service-orientation should certainly be celebrated but are not necessarily the end-game. Developing a service-oriented experience for customers across all platforms where you do business authentically represents that being service-minded is permeating your culture.
  • Performance Management.  As an experienced operator, you inherently know the operational indicators that drive success on a specific mission or project.  Understanding what makes that service sustainable over the long-term and how to deliver repeatable results requires a broader focus.  Correlating measurements of customer outcomes to measurements of internal operations to measurements of workforce development is critical to effective service delivery.  This approach requires that you balance objective operational metrics equally to the softer, qualitative elements of innovation, professional development, and customer intent to transact.
  • Stakeholder Outreach and Engagement.  This is a node for listening and for projecting.  When an organization understands itself as a service business, it naturally becomes more sensitive and responsive to customer needs and input.  If your mission is too complex to easily understand, then as yourself what you are doing to demystify it for the consumption of the broader population.  This also brings clarity and focus to strategy and operations, allowing agency messages become easier to articulate and communicate.  Organizations should be able to discuss in detail what it is doing for whom and how well it is doing it.  This ultimately allows citizens and their elected representatives to make better judgments about the value delivered for specific portions of our social contract.


In our next piece, we will explore some of the enabling activities that work to keep operations rolling.  As always, we welcome your thoughts in the comments below or to