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4 forces disrupting and shaping the future of government

Election cycles come and go, and policies are tried, improved or replaced. Unique societal and cultural forces also exert their influence on government (think the baby boom). Change, in other words, is the nature of our democratic government.

Yet even within this flow, four specific forces are now exerting distinct pressures on government that will fundamentally alter the way it serves its citizens: the rise of millennials, decreasing budgets, increasing citizen expectations and the impact of digital.

Combined, these forces impact government organizations at every level -- from acquisition, IT strategy and human resources all the way to mission execution. They are apolitical; they exert pressure regardless of which political party is in power, and they are beginning to impose significant and lasting change on our public sector.

The rise of the millennials

Millennials are a major force of change in the world, and there are three overriding factors that shape not only how this critical demographic perceives the world but also how the world -- particularly companies and governments -- responds to them. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 32.1 percent of people aged 18-34 are living at home with their parents, more than at any time in the past 130 years. Millennials also are carrying more student debt than previous generations, with 68 percent leaving college with debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. And lastly, a large portion of this generation came into the job market during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. These factors affect how millennials plan and navigate their lives; they drive decisions around how and when millennials  get married or start a family. The new challenge for government is in serving a generation that isn’t following a life lived by the post-World War II playbook, but writing a new chapter for itself.

Government agencies at the state and federal level will be impacted by the behavior of this demographic and must think through how to adapt to the changes millennials are already having on work and familial expectations. This generation’s direct interactions with the federal government will continue to increase as the government continues to provide more direct-to-citizen services than at any time in the nation’s history. The government’s increasing involvement in health care, through the Affordable Care Act, and the federal student loan program are just two examples of this rise in engagement with the citizenry. As the number of direct citizen-to-government interactions continues to increase, the needs and demands of millennials will change how government agencies see themselves and their missions – and, most importantly, how they serve the public as a whole.

Decreasing budgets

In the current budgetary environment, many federal agencies are grappling with budget cuts and what this means for how they fulfill their missions. President Donald Trump’s proposed FY 2018 budget features massive cuts to the departments of Agriculture, State and Education, just to name a few. Despite the recently negotiated budget compromise by Congress, the era of agency belt-tightening will remain a feature of federal government spending for at least the next four years. In response, government leaders must find new ways to deliver on their agencies' mission.

Budget constraints can provide opportunities to identify inefficiencies and ways to apply strategy, creativity and technology solutions that maximize the value of taxpayer dollars.

For instance, currently compacting the pain of budget cuts for many agencies is the Government Accountability Office’s finding that 75 percent of agencies’ IT budgets, on average, are spent on the operation and maintenance of legacy IT systems, while only 25 percent is spent on development, modernization and enhancement of technology. This provides an impetus for federal agencies to experiment with new technologies that at once lower costs and modernize legacy technology infrastructure. Forced to redefine the parameters of success within this fiscal reality, government may discover new ways to keep pace with the constant evolution of technology, maximize budget effectiveness and fundamentally change and enhance its relationship with the public.

Increasing citizen expectations

As consumers’ needs have been met in new ways over the years, expectations for service have only continued to rise, and citizens are increasingly expecting that same level of service from government. Fifteen years ago, a senior Marine Corps officer told the story of one of his young Marines asking, “Sir, why can I get the oil in my car changed in 30 minutes at Jiffy Lube right outside of base, but it takes me two weeks to get the oil changed in my Humvee?” Today, the idea that government is different and that citizens should expect a different level of service is increasingly intolerable. Just as it was for the young Marine, the line between government and nongovernment organizations has blurred; this blurring creates a challenge and an opportunity for government.

Changing expectations are forcing the government to evolve the way it informs, engages and protects its citizens, who will come to demand the same coordinated multichannel experience they expect from the commercial sector. It’s an opportunity for agencies to design tools that improve transparency or enhance citizen access to benefits and information -- while ultimately furthering and transforming its mission. The Transportation Security Administration’s blog, for example, is a wonderful real-time platform for interacting with the public, engaging directly in a meaningful dialog about security and the travel experience -- a key aspect of its mission.

The impact of digital

The advances in technology over the last 20 years have dramatically altered our lives. The iPhone, for example, is just 10 years old, yet it has fundamentally changed the way we live and experience the world. Digital transformation also has upended business models that had worked for over a century. The recent upheaval in the retail sector this year, which has laid off  89,000 Americans since last October alone, as reported by the New York Times, is but the latest example of how digital technology has the power to quickly transform an entire industry. Technology (in this case, e-commerce) is fueling this fundamental shift. Government is not immune to these changes; on the contrary, it exists in the middle of this shifting landscape.

Digital transformation is a force changing the way an agency fulfills its mission, and it’s both a challenge and an opportunity across government. While digital -- from responsive websites to social media -- has changed the calculus for how federal agencies successfully serve the public, it also provides an opportunity to look across an organization and evaluate an agency’s maturity, goals and mission. Indeed, the impact of digital reaches beyond the IT department to the entire organization and offers opportunities to enhance everything from policy to human resources to acquisition.

Concluding thoughts

These four forces may produce an era of more responsive and adaptive government, powered by agencies continuing to experiment, evolve how they serve the public and deliver on their mission. The challenge for government agencies of all sizes, then, is not how to address each one of these forces individually but how to develop a comprehensive operating and investment model that creates the future of government.

About the Author

Nathan Brewer is a vice president in Sapient Consulting’s Public Sector practice.


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