Saul Kaplan: Confessions of an Accidental Bureaucrat

I successfully avoided government throughout the first 20 years of my private sector career. But in 2003, after a career first in industry and then as a road-warrior strategy consultant, I found myself as an accidental bureaucrat in the public sector.

I never saw it coming. After a weak attempt at retirement, my wife wasn’t in the market for a strategy consultant to advise on household operations. What I hoped would be a year at home to sort out options quickly became a not so subtle nudge out the door to find my next gig.

I naively raised my hand to the newly elected Governor of Rhode Island and the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) and asked how I could help. The next thing I knew I was at the RIEDC, first as the agency’s lead for strategy and development, and then as a member of the Governor’s Cabinet and Executive Director of the agency. I had become an accidental bureaucrat.

I spent six years in the public sector and loved every (well almost every) moment of it. It was an innovation junkie’s dream to catalyze a statewide conversation on how to transform from an industrial era to a 21st century innovation economy.

Saul KaplanDuring my time with the state, many friends asked, “Doesn’t the public sector move too slowly for you”? After twenty years of working with big companies I am not sure they move too quickly, themselves. While it’s true government moves slowly, neither of these structures move quickly, have adequate capacity for trying new models and approaches, or work and play nicely together.

But given my background as someone who has worked in both sectors, I think there is much that the public and private sectors can learn from each other.

There’s a reason it’s called the public sector: Everything is public. My schedule, emails, comments — everything — was all out in the public and transparent. The private sector could take a lesson in this kind of transparency. It took a while to get used to but it was good training for today’s social media world.

Government also knows that citizens are the customer and ignores them at the risk of citizen unrest, protest, or a vote against an opponent. Most companies barely know their customers and are routinely blindsided by growing customer unrest fueled, in part, by social media platforms. In the public sector, this customer awareness coupled with pretty extreme transparency forced us to pay closer attention to our constituents.

The public sector can take a page from private sector when it comes to decision-making, however. It seemed at times like no decision was ever final in the public sector, and it can be infuriating. When a decision is ostensibly made, instead of the focus shifting to implementation it often just shifts toward ways to undo or turn against the decision. No wonder very little gets done.

The most important lesson, however, applies to both the public and private sector. Collaboration across sectors is the only way we will transform our economy and make progress on our big social system challenges. We hear a great deal about public-private partnerships but I saw little evidence that either sector is prepared to get below the buzzwords to make true cross-sector collaborations operational at scale.

And that’s a real problem. The industrial era has left us with a large number of deep and seemingly impenetrable silos. If we’re going to make progress on the big social system challenges we face, including education, health care, and energy, we must build collaboration and experimentation muscle to design, prototype, and test new models and systems that cut across traditional boundaries, sectors, and disciplines.

I am back in the private sector now, with a renewed passion for innovation. I am grateful for the perspective gained as an accidental bureaucrat and committed to catalyzing system change across the public and private sector. Students, patients, and citizens are waiting.

Any other accidental bureaucrats out there? If so, please share lessons from your time in the public sector.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from Harvard Business Review)


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