In the course of each of our professions, we have invariably come across ridiculous processes, procedures, or workflows that we are obliged to follow. To object would mean that your expense reimbursements, travel requests, or vacation blocking would get denied. In bigger situations, it would mean that managers couldn't hire, promote, or fire people. I was fortunate to have worked at Microsoft where there was a big emphasis on "self-service delivery" of HR functions, but even Microsoft was far from perfect in terms of their procedures and methodologies. At issue is an organization's ability to effectively modernize its Business Process Management (BPM) capabilities. Many organizations still have not recognized the efficiency and effectiveness improvements that can be had from shifting from a 20th century serial processes to 21st century parallel processes. In government, BPM continues to be an area that needs improvement.
What is Business Process Management?
Not wanting my blog post to sound like a vendor pitch, I'll rip Wikipedia's definition of BPM:
"Business process management (BPM) has been referred to as a "holistic management" approach  to aligning an organization's business processes with the wants and needs of clients [or constituents]. It promotes business effectiveness and efficiency while striving for innovation, flexibility, and integration with technology. BPM attempts to improve processes continuously. It can therefore be described as a 'process optimization process.'"
What this really means is that your boss's silly approvals process that's been intact since the days of the telegraph can be changed and improved upon as easy as socializing on Facebook. Click a few buttons, select some drop-down options, check a box and BOOM….new process implemented across the enterprise. The best part is that most people involved in the process wouldn't even know a change had been done, unless it actually simplified your workload. Knowing a little about NYU's internal procedures and systems, a solid BPM methodology would mean that student groups, faculty, and staff don't have to wait SIX WEEKS to get expenses reimbursed! (Yes six weeks, plus paper forms and receipt scanning…its sad). It is worth explaining that most of these legacy processes are legacy remnants of the 1950's paper-pushing methodology. It doesn't really have to be this way though.
Serial vs. Parallel Processing
The above Microsoft MSDN diagram describes the basics of workflow types. At NYU, I've been told that approvals go through four levels of approvals before reimbursements are approved for issuance. As an enterprise architect, this tells me a lot of about the work culture that NYU fosters, and it isn't a positive one that is built on trust and effectiveness. In a serial process, every layer you add between the initiator of a request and the grantor is almost pure overhead. The beauty of a well-built parallel process is the ability to implement business logic or rules that ensure no one person acts as a blocker. For example, in a parallel system, an architect could define that expense reimbursements under $5000 could be approved if one-half of the "approvers" in the chain approve the request. Conversely, if expenses go over $5000, you can require a two-thirds ratio plus an explicit finance department clearance. Things really get fun with a hybrid model, but I digress.
As much as people complain about government, if one was to seriously examine how the best programs and institutions function, people would be amazed. If anything, government has mastered the science of serializing processes. The Federal Government is so good in fact that overhead for some agencies (see Social Security Administration Expenses) are below one percent! The traditional Medicare program allocates only 1 percent of total spending to overhead compared with 6 percent when the privatized portion of Medicare, known as Medicare Advantage, is included, according to a study in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.
Now I'm being a little disingenuous stating that these programs are examples of serial processes. In fact I would not be surprised if many parallel processes have been implemented, but like the example in the previous section, the meat is in the actual business logic. In the 20th century, the processes were optimized around efficiency. In the 21st century, the processes must be optimized for efficiency, transparency, AND intentions so that people on the receiving end of requests don't have to decipher pages of documentation to determine what needs to be done. It should be as intuitive as an iPhone notification from your bank. The promise of Open Data and machine-readable data is that it will force all federal agencies to shift from the paper-based process to a true digital-first process. While the transition will undoubtedly be tough for the bureaucrats, they all will be the first beneficiaries in the transition, with the ultimate beneficiary being the taxpayers. Public policy architects have the opportunity to drive dramatic change by instituting the full capabilities of modern BPM methodologies directly into new policy initiatives. Hopefully, with a little ingenuity, we can cut that 1% in half while improving services.