SmartComment was lucky to spend several days in September with the leaders of some of the nation's most innovative environmental agencies at the annual Environmental Council of States (ECOS) conference in Jackson, Wyoming.
Alongside clients, contacts and new friends, we attended sessions that focused on some of the most current - and critical - issues facing environmental regulators today: streamlining state coordination with the EPA, better communicating program outcomes with the public, improving the permitting process, and many other important topics.
Throughout these sessions, one of the consistent themes was an oft-repeated one in regulatory circles: how agencies can do more with less. An evergreen topic in government, it's taken on added importance in an era when budgets are continuously changing.
It's also a topic close to our hearts here at SmartComment, as we continue to help agencies discover a better way to digitally manage their public comment periods and overall digital public engagement - without the expense and staff burden of the manual process. Through conversations and keynotes, here are some of our key takeaways about how resourceful agencies are managing the near-universal mandate to get lean.
Don't Wait for a Crisis
In the business world, staff sizes, expenses and corporate practices are explicitly dictated by a company's financial picture. There are systems, job descriptions and teams of consultants whose sole focus is to shape a company's size and structure around the bottom line - growing or shrinking depending on a set of carefully monitored metrics. This is not always the case in government, where cutback efforts are traditionally reactive to a significant budget cut or reduction in scope. A 1996 report from the Manhattan Institute lays out the dangers of such a mindset: "Too often in government, it takes a crisis to create opportunity and the demand for change," the report said. To avoid the kind of sneaking bloat that sometimes leads to such crisis, agency leaders should take a business approach to their bottom line. Not only is it desirable and contributive to agency transparency, but it breeds multiple other benefits like stability, accountability, and the freedom to focus on the precise needs of the public.
Have a Conversation
Before randomly cutting programs or haphazardly strategizing about parts of your process that might not yield the best results, the first step in building a more efficient agency organization should be a simple discussion about the topic with agency leaders, employees and other stakeholders. Talk about where to prioritize your resources, what to focus spending on, even areas where potential inefficiencies might lurk. To understand the rubber-meets-the-road aspect of agency business, throw as wide a net as possible to see the practical impact of your policies in the real world, getting input from contractors, fellow agencies, and citizens. Is it a lot to bite off at the very beginning of an effort to review overall agency business? It's not - especially with the valuable going-forward intel the effort will no doubt yield. And if you're worried about efficiently processing all that information, a digital solution like SmartComment allows you to take e-comments on a given topic from all of your stakeholders via a dedicated web portal or survey tool, see emerging trends with a dashboard of graphs and charts - even generate an email list for further discussion.
Take Stock of Expenses
Concurrent with a wider conversation about your agency's processes and policies, leaders should identify and examine all agency expenses - from both a high-level perspective, down to the granular. Only through a thorough and transparent review of an agency's financial picture will you identify some of the most obvious areas for modernization or cutbacks. In a 2010 report from the Center for American Progress, one organization leader recounted how his agency discovered it was spending money on unoccupied housing units across several of its programs - simply because they didn't have a system to monitor whether the units were occupied or not. Of course, not all budget-trimming happens through program cuts. In fact, some of the most effective ongoing efficiencies can be realized through a far more powerful force: modernization.
Modernize, Modernize, Modernize
The digital age is transforming everything about our lives - from how we shop, consume entertainment and connect with our friends and family. Digital capabilities can have an equally profound impact in government, but agency leaders have to make it a program-wide priority. Task your departments with a "Google sprint" by looking far and wide for one of the many solutions that can help one of your employees work smarter. From permitting to accounting to records management to inspections, there's no shortage of digital options for the paper processes currently bogging down your staff. And finding the perfect one can be a true game-changer - for your organization and the public alike.
Have an Investment Mentality
One of the keys of an effective plan to manage agency efficiency is focusing not just on cuts, but on spending more money on programs that can actually yield savings in other areas. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. But agency leadership should look at its various programs as an interconnected web with synergistic benefits, rather than a collection of unrelated units. Far from the world of environmental regulation, an example of this comes from former Housing & Urban Development secretary Shaun Donovan, who detailed how dedicating budget to house the homeless - with a small payment, a security deposit, and a one-month rent check - produced enormous benefits when it proved to reduce agency money that would otherwise be spent on emergency room visits, shelters, and other traditional solutions. "(T)oo often, we have the 'wrong pocket' problem... we don't think across agencies," Donovan told a Center for American Progress forum. "We need a new math in budgeting to be able to do that... to figure out where we can save money by investing in the right places."