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Former governor Martin O'Malley: There's a new, promising wave of governance — and it's coming from technology and cities

Business Insider Australia logo Business Insider Australia 16/01/2020 Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Martin O'Malley. Martin O'Malley.
  • Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland and former mayor of Baltimore, is currently the Poling Chair of Business and Government at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. His new book, "Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age," was published by Esri Press in November 2019.
  • He writes that the government has some catching up to do when it comes to consumer expectations - the technology and affordability are there, but public service has become slow and risk-averse.
  • However, a new model of leadership and governance is appearing in cities; it's performance measured and interactive. It requires consistently bringing people together and following the evidence where it leads.
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Western democracies have some catching up to do with consumer expectations. According to a 2015 study completed by the Pew Research Centre, 65% of Americans go online to find information they need about their government - but only 11% report finding the government effective at sharing data.

If Amazon, Uber, and a host of other companies can provide better service thanks to the new technologies of the Information Age, why can't our governments? If the GPS system in my car can navigate me to the quickest route through traffic congestion and fender benders, why can't my government use these same technologies to better anticipate these routine accidents?

Technology isn't the problem. The technology is proven. Nor is cost a barrier; the availability of these new technologies is widespread and relatively inexpensive. The problem is the great human variable of leadership.

Old habits die hard. And over the course of time, public administration has developed a very slow, cautious, and risk-averse approach to embracing new technologies - the tyranny of "the way we have always done it" in public service.

In Silicon Valley, people who keep trying new things - even though they sometimes fail - are called innovators and entrepreneurs. The operative myth in government, however, is that people who try new things and fail are fired or voted out of office. What many people remember most vividly about the implementation of Obamacare was not its successful passage, but in many states, its failed launch.

But a new way of leading and governing is emerging. And it is rising up from cities.

In most big cities across America today, call centres and customer service guarantees have become the new normal. In some places, historic data is being combined with predictive analytics to pre-deploy tow trucks to the places where minor accidents most frequently happen at rush hour, or to deploy police patrol cars to the tiny squares on the map where crime most frequently happened during the same eight-hour shift over the prior 10 years.

A new generation of leadership is changing the old mindset. And a sharp contrast is emerging between old and new.

The old way of leadership was characterised by closed structures - hierarchy, bureaucracy, command and control, and information tightly controlled at the top. The new way of leadership is characterised by open structures - common platforms for collaboration, open data, and timely, accurate information shared by all.

This new way of leadership is entrepreneurial, performance-measured, and interactive. Authority is increasingly based not on the old law of "because I told you to do it," but on the new law of "because I can show you it works."

This new way of leadership is not effortless. It requires work. It requires a different kind of discipline. Most of all, it requires a relentless commitment to bringing people together in short, regular meetings focused on the latest emerging truth of what is - truth about conditions on the ground and the actions being taken to change those conditions.

The purpose of laying down a repeatable pattern of recurring meetings is not simply to have meetings, or to "ooh" and "ah" at pretty maps - it's to figure out better ways to coordinate, communicate, and cooperate to produce better results.

This new way of leadership also requires will at the centre of the collaborative endeavour. The will - and the courage - to follow the evidence wherever it might lead. The will to try new things to see if they work to deliver better results. But first, it requires the will to begin, and the will to persist.

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