In Government IT, Innovators Are Gaining Ground

When one thinks of agility, innovation and cutting-edge technology, it’s understandable if Government IT isn’t the first term that comes to mind. Often seen as the poster child for inefficiency, ineffectualness and inhospitable employees, government agencies—and the tech that powers many government services— face a long road to gaining the trust of its citizens.

But there is hope, and there is a growing mindset within Government IT that aligns closer to the digital vision of Silicon Valley than to the bureaucracy of Washington, DC.  A new group of innovators is coming into government with this digital mindset, and William D. Eggers, the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Innovation and the author  DELIVERING ON DIGITAL: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government (Rosetta Books, June 7, 2016), explores how technology is changing the perception of government services. In this interview with CIO Insight, Eggers discusses how attracting top talent to Government IT is critical and how five characteristics are essential to digital transformation: a belief in openness, user-centricity, co-creation, simplicity and agility.

CIO Insight: How can IT jobs in government compete with private companies that traditionally pay better, and perhaps exhibit more cachet?

The most powerful tool governments have to entice them is mission. Techies love solving problems. Governments can entice them with the promise of changing a flawed system. Let them make a complicated process easy for millions of people.

The second thing that needs to happen is to re-engineer government’s hiring process. Governments can’t effectively compete for tech talent when it takes 10 months to get someone hired. They can follow the lead of 18F, the federal government’s digital studio, which managed to slash hiring times from six to nine months to six to nine weeks.

Attracting talent also requires creating a workplace that helps this workforce thrive. There is no point recruiting great tech talent into a rigid, hierarchical, bureaucratic environment because they will just leave.

Lastly, governments can greatly improve their access to digital talent by participating in the broader tech ecosystem, including “borrowed talent” (contractor employees), “freelance talent” (independent, individual contractors) and “open-source talent” (people who can be engaged to help you solve a problem or create a product). By taking advantage of this ecosystem, government can tap into the skills and talent of those doing cutting-edge work in digital technology, wherever they reside.

CIO Insight: Is there a shift in mindset that government IT is a place for innovation and enacting real change?

Yes. A whole new group of innovators are coming into government with a digital mindset that is simply different from the attitudes driving most organizations, especially in the public sector. It’s a different way of thinking about customers; a different way of launching products and services; a different way of working.

The digital mindset is more akin to the Silicon Valley mindset than the typical attitudes of senior public officials. It’s shared by a cadre of new digital leaders in governments from Washington to London, from Tallinn to Seoul.

Five characteristics tend to be common among individuals that understand the opportunities inherent in digital transformation: a belief in openness, user-centricity, co-creation, simplicity and agility. In many respects, the digital worldview is as important to the future of government as the labels “conservative” or “liberal” were to its past.

CIO Insight: Companies that fail to innovate have a limited lifespan. What happens to government agencies that fail to innovate in an increasingly digital world?

They lose the trust of their citizens. Trust in government today is at an all-time low in the U.S. A big reason for this is the growing gulf between the experience citizens have interacting with today’s best consumer-facing companies compared to government services.

In a world where any song can be played instantly, any product on Earth can arrive to your doorstep in 24 hours, and a ride is never more than three minutes away from your phone, it’s just inconceivable to imagine waiting weeks or months for a transaction with government.

As Mike Bracken, the founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service has remarked: “In a world where everything is becoming quicker and easier, if government doesn’t become quicker and easier too, it will be intermediated away. Not out of existence, but to the point where it’s invisible to the public, where engagement with government services will disappear.”

CIO Insight: How far away is the U.S. government from becoming a truly digital nation, similar to Estonia, a country that allows tasks such as online voting?

Digital transformation in a country like America is many times more difficult and complex than a small country like Estonia. It was only in 1991 that Estonia emerged from 50 years of Soviet occupation, with an infrastructure laid down in the 1930s. But it turned out the timing was perfect: Estonia reclaimed its sovereignty at the dawn of the Internet age. Since the new nation was building many of its IT systems for the first time, the Internet played an outsized role and the country could mostly start from scratch. Nearly every aspect of Estonian government and business—taxes, banking, health care, you name it—was tailored for the online world.

The US government, meanwhile, must contend with massive legacy systems built decades ago, pre-World Wide Web. These underpin an alarming percentage of the operational and data storage work that government – at all levels – actually does. It will take time to migrate out of them.

CIO Insight: Government agencies are stereotyped for long waits, inefficiency and outdated technology. Where does one even begin to change this reputation, and how can tech help do this?

Start with people. Most critical to achieving government’s digital future are the people who will drive the transformation. Attracting innovators with a digital mindset into government—change-makers like the ones profiled in my book—and supporting those already there is essential. Like Mike Bracken, the co-founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service, they’ll rock the boat. Like Jim Wadleigh, the CEO of Access Health CT, they’ll make people uncomfortable. Like Jennifer Pahlka, the CEO of Code for America, they’ll question everything about current ways of working and challenge every assumption about how government should deliver services to citizen. At the end of the day, digital transformation simply won’t happen without people like them. A growing cadre of digital innovators is as indispensable—even more so—to achieving government’s digital future as the technologies that enable it.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.


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