The following commentary was adapted from an essay by Jagjit Dhaliwal, deputy CIO for the Los Angeles County Office of the Chief Information Officer. It was originally published on LinkedIn. 

Throughout my IT consulting service experience, I was able to explore multiple industry domains across different geographical locations.

After working in the private sector for many years, I got an opportunity to explore the public sector recently. Accepting the challenge of a public-sector job was a big paradigm shift that introduced me to different but exciting challenges. I have completed almost one year at the Los Angeles County Office of the CIO, and now that I am able to better understand the culture, processes and people of the county, I can share my perspective on differences between two distinct worlds:

Purpose of existence: The business goals of the public and private sectors are quite different: It’s “service to people” versus “revenue generation.” Public-sector organizations are often pressed by legislative mandates with a single target of service to the public. But the metrics to measure success in public service organizations are difficult to quantify (e.g., how successful are programs and services to prevent recidivism?) versus the private sector (e.g., revenue, profits, margin, consumer registrations, attrition, etc.).

High Stakes: The public sector is securitized for every cost due to being funded by taxpayers. This creates a risk-averse environment where failure is not an option, which causes projects to take a long time to implement and late adoption of technology. The private sector has the pressure of faster “go-to-market” needs, which facilitates a more innovative culture in which staff are encouraged to try new ideas and failure is viewed as a positive step forward. It’s the difference of the “can’t afford to fail” versus the “fail fast” mindset.

Change Outlook: Due to long-duration projects and significant risks associated with new implementations, there is potential “resistance to change” unless it is driven by a legislative/regulatory compliance situation. In the private sector, business always looks for innovative ways to retain customers and grow revenue/margins, invoking the theme that “Change is the only constant.” If private firms do not acknowledge changing needs quickly, they will soon be replaced by the competition, as we see from examples like Sears, Blockbusters, Kodak, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the public sector.

Process: As the public sector is serving a large community, with permutations of client behavior and expectations, processes evolve over time and become very complex. Be it a business process or operational process related to hiring, budgeting or procurement, a process can be a constraint more than an enabler. It’s comparatively easy to change processes in the private sector as driven by market conditions.

Individual Silos: Collaboration and access to information in the private sector is comparatively faster. There seem to be "silos" in state and local governments that result in inefficiencies and duplication. The same business function is approached and implemented in multiple ways, which results in significant difficulties whenever there is any policy change.

Management/Leadership: Public and private organizations face challenges that are unique to each sector. The nature of leadership in the public sector is more complex: It’s difficult to measure success, as public-sector managers tend to be more focused on deep collaboration between different agencies and effective communication. In the private sector, the management is comparatively easy, being focused on a single, measurable goal and easy access to the feedback loop. A simple example could be homelessness measures (public sector) versus e-commerce implementation (private sector); think of these two programs’ criteria for success.

With significant transformation happening in the public sector right now, there is an opportunity to leverage the best practices from private organizations to enhance the end-user experience. With more focus on smart cities, a customer-centric approach and self-service models, I see good opportunity for the public sector to start adopting a few changes, such as the following:

  • More need for collaboration between the public and private sectors, especially on large civic engagements.
  • Bring in outside perspective at different stages and in different roles by hiring more millennials from the private sector. It can only happen when the next generation will see a lucrative and clear career path.
  • Foster a competitive environment where all employees are constantly challenged to contribute and adapt new skills as needs emerge. Top performers must be rewarded suitably, including promotions based on merit rather than seniority.
  • Adopt the agile approach, even in large programs, by identifying early criteria for success and failure.
  • Enable a citizen-centric approach in all initiatives by enabling direct feedback loops and inclusion of residents in the governance framework.

Finally, there can be good opportunities for all agencies to approach common problems together and diminish geographical and political boundaries. Irrespective of the differences between the public and private sectors, an organization's people, support and cultural spirit are very similar.