The Importance of a Well-Designed System

Last summer, I got my husband to agree—reluctantly—to tackle our backyard in a big way. We sit on an odd lot and our backyard is designed in such a way that much of our space isn’t usable. With two boys and a dog, I want a place where our kids can hang out and have fun. To help us figure out how to best maximize our space, we hired a landscape architect. He is a wonderful gentleman and listened attentively to our desires. He has years of experience and a credible resume. After multiple visits and iterations, he presented us with his design plan or “blueprint” for our back yard.

We took his design to a number of contractors to obtain bids. To our surprise and horror, all of the bids were outside of our budget—I mean really outside of our budget! In discussing their bids, the feedback was consistent. While the blueprint was beautiful, it wasn’t practical or easily achievable. First, the landscape architect did not take into account where underground pipes or utility lines run. The plan would force significant and additional work for the general contractor. Second, those who would have to actually implement the plan said that while the placement of certain features looked great on paper, they would have to build reinforcing structures to make things work. Because our budget was limited, we had to discard the blueprint and start from scratch. In doing so, we lost a year in the process—having to wait for this spring to take up the cause again.

This experience highlights a common problem: There was a gap between the plan and what it would take to do the work for the available budget. The architect described “what” we wanted while the general contractors figured out “how” to do it and “how much” it would cost. When these don’t align, plans fail. 

I see the same phenomenon in government. We have a lot of good architects—people who produce the “what.” These individuals can and should articulate what needs to occur or change as manifested through public policy. However, no matter how good an architect is, he or she still needs an expert contractor to coordinate “how” to implement the plan. Public policy architects are absolutely necessary, but we often have an abundance of architects and a shortage of general contractors.

Notice the emphasis of programs and public services. They generally focus on the architect’s side of the equation. Who are these architects? They are administrators—often with Master’s degrees in public policy, legislators who define public policy, public policy think tanks, policy advisors, and public policy advocacy groups. These are all important roles. However, the emphasis in government frequently lacks focus on how all of the public policy objectives should efficiently and effectively be implemented. In other words, there is generally more attention on strategies than on operations.

Having architects without also having expert general contractors at the table—ready to “build” the system—leaves government at a big disadvantage. Equally challenging is the architect who isn’t aware that a general contractor is even necessary. Finally, blueprints that assume or dabble with the work of the general contractors can create obstacles down the road and lots of rework. 

The skills, expertise, and tools of general contractors are different from those of an architect. General contractors can detect most of the invisible processes and activities that obstruct our work—essentially uncovering the utility lines that may impede our performance. Contractors commonly know how to improve flow, increase work time, reduce errors, enhance quality, address and understand backlogs, and eliminate the bottlenecks that gum up processes and waste precious resources. They should be willing to eliminate unneeded processes and activities; streamline paperwork; and facilitate an increase in the time professionals have to do the work they are trained to do—like educate children or ensure the safety of vulnerable populations. This expertise among contractors isn’t always a given and not always intuitive; therefore, we need to hire and train for it. Successful contractors have on-the-ground experience with translating vision into reality. Much of what they do isn’t taught at our universities or acknowledged within our legislative bodies. But without good contractors, our public policies are either poorly executed or eventually shelved.

In contrast, architects need to envision the public policy objective or goal and set the direction. For example, providing health care to a certain segment of the population is a critical public policy issue. Policy makers need to interpret data to help them set the proper vision and establish a solid foundation upon which a system can be built.

Private sector companies seldom operate large-scale endeavors without having a chief operating officer—an individual with the skills and mindset needed to implement the organization’s strategic plan. In government, we need to develop that same type of expertise—whatever one’s official title. Good leaders recognize that designing public policy and implementing it require different skill sets. Leadership should deliberately develop and train for the contractor skill set. Additionally, they should cultivate operational awareness—learning enough himself/herself to ask the right questions and reinforce the focus. With well-constructed public policy and proper focus on operations, government can be efficient and effective. When one or both of these elements miss, government fails its citizens.