The Shift to Servant Leadership: How federal agencies can support states, territories, and communities after the pandemic

Jun 14, 2022

In the spring of 2020, I started working on pandemic response projects as part of my tour of service with the US Digital Service. When we tried to solve the problem of getting better public health data faster to folks who needed it for the response, we traveled to multiple states to speak with local and state public health officials and understand what their concrete technological, organizational, and regulatory barriers were to collecting and sharing pandemic data amongst themselves and with federal teams.

We heard a common refrain: “We are over capacity, and we need help. Not just money, or rules, or requests for data. Help.”

What I began to realize over the subsequent two years was that I was witnessing the beginning of what I believe—and hope—to be a seismic shift in the relationship between the federal government and constituent governments such as states, territories, tribes, and localities. I describe this shift as one to servant leadership.

A few years ago, I worked in a company where “servant leadership” was all the rage. The idea was that managers should seek to serve their team, and not the other way around: they should help their employees do their jobs to the best of their ability, not just set goals and performance metrics and walk away. This resulted in teams being more effective and employees being happier, because we were all working together to set goals that were achievable, with managers having a clearer understanding of what went into achieving them. Managers also started being proactive about helping with small or mundane things, or removing blockers, so that employees could focus on what they did best, the skills that were the value they were bringing to the team, and thus to the company.

This does not describe the historical dynamic between the federal government and states/territories. Some might even balk at my implication that the feds are “managers” of states. However, I think the analogy stands: the federal government acts (or should act) as leaders amongst the constituent governments, by setting nationwide policy goals, funding programs that further those aims, and holding states accountable to meeting important goals, standards, and regulations, such as accessibility or equity requirements, typically through monetary penalties. In other words, the feds say, “Here’s what we want you to do, here’s a pile of money, and here are the rules. Now, go.”

What would it look like if the federal government took on a servant leadership philosophy in working with states/territories implementing federally funded policy and programs?

Instead of simply adding strings and a vague direction to the purses they hand out, what if they worked with these smaller governments to set achievable goals and proactively provide support to achieve them, in the form of useful resources, shared services, and, simply, help?

Now, I understand this question of the relationship between federal and state/territorial governments is a fundamental one that Americans have been debating for centuries. Is there federal government there for national defense and maintaining a really old, rarely refactored document that’s supposed to enshrine civil rights? Or is it there to help people and actively protect (and maybe even advance) those rights? I am not a constitutional lawyer nor do I hold a PhD in American history or public policy. I can only speak from my own experience working in and around government and community organizing for ten years.

What I have seen is this: the federal government has left a huge gap in digital public infrastructure (including software but also knowledge, best practices, user research, etc), and states are realizing the gross inefficiencies of going it alone and outsourcing all of that individually to vendors who are incentivized by profit, not public interest. As a result. people in the real world are getting the short end of the stick with poorly designed public services and even more poorly built technology supporting those services. This is especially problematic in this increasingly mobile and online world where people might live, work, travel, or care for family in multiple states all at once, but where there is poor interstate digital infrastructure.

It’s time we invested in our federation and the infrastructure we need to hold it together–and servant leadership from the federal level is a critical part of that.

While this idea is not yet common, fortunately it’s not new, and it’s gaining ever more momentum with federally funded programs since the pandemic started. In the nondigital space, the classic example of centrally designed and supported infrastructure is the national Eisenhower Interstate System. Another example someone in the open source policy space recently shared is that of the National Archives: while the Archives’ mission is the preservation of federal records, it also embodies servant leadership by supporting state archival efforts through open source software, resources, events, and programs, in addition to the more typical grants.

Meanwhile, the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT, originally created in 2004 by the Bush administration and legislatively mandated in 2009 as part of the HITECH Act, serves in an even more explicit servant leader role in the digital space. Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, ONC’s job is to advise, coordinate, and support with health information technology across all levels of government, including the creation of state health information exchanges (HIE) – not to mandate or regulate how states spend money. ONC helps states who want to create an HIE with strategy, technology, and interoperability, and they have good relationships with these states and their HIEs because of this type of partnership.

ONC is an example of how the federal government has invested in an entire department that exists to help states create infrastructure, and provides strategy, policy, standards, and tech (things I would also include in the umbrella of “infrastructure”) as part of this support. This isn’t common. Federal agencies often tend to outsource support, knowledge, and interstate digital infrastructure to the private sector, typically in the form of major national nonprofits or associations of state/territorial governments. For example, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) receives federal funding to provide IT support and products for state unemployment insurance technology.

Federal government also provides support to states through “technical assistance,” whereby a federal program dedicates a pot of money or a host of contractor teams reserved for helping states with some aspect of implementation, either by running the contractor teams themselves or paying private organizations like the ones mentioned above to run them. From what I’ve seen (and I’ve by no means seen them all!), these programs have a variety of results and implementation details, but they tend to be one-off efforts or grants and unfortunately too often any learnings gleaned from an effort stays within the recipient state or within the minds of the contractors deployed there. There is a huge opportunity for technical assistance to also act as user research and feed into a broader program strategy that reuses lessons learned, processes or software developed, informs the development of a shared service or infrastructure component, and even influences program policy based on findings from the reality of implementation.

The momentum is building for the feds to take more ownership of the support and shared infrastructure (including knowledge, software, and services) they provide to constituent governments. The Department of Labor, for example, is piloting an initiative for unemployment insurance technology that embodies this perfectly. Their program includes deploying new software in Arkansas and New Jersey, sharing best practices and lessons learned from those and other states, and publishing open source reference implementations to inform better UI tech.1

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in partnership with the US Digital Service has also launched new public health infrastructure and support projects over the past two years, under the Pandemic-Ready Interoperability Modernization Effort (PRIME) initiative.2 This effort has included trying new tactics for technical assistance as well as helping states set up critical public health infrastructure that is interoperable with other states’ and federal systems, so that states can not only meet federal requirements for COVID (or other infectious disease) reporting but also help states meet their own reporting needs and achieve their own public health goals.

I’m excited that DOL and CDC–and I’m sure other federal agencies I haven’t noted here–are taking on more of a servant leadership role with states, territories, tribes, and other governments and communities. I want to see folks at all levels of government working together to understand user needs and priorities (where users are the public as well as public servants), set goals collaboratively, and then create and share knowledge, best practices, code, and other services and infrastructure to help those governments reach those goals, save time and money, and ultimately improve the lives of the people.

1 Want to read some more of my ideas for improving unemployment insurance technology? Check out my recent white paper, Collaborating to Improve Unemployment Insurance.
2 Full disclaimer: I was on the founding team so I'm maybe a little biased!
Header image attribution: "help-wanted-sign-1" by kpmcguire is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.