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When Hiring Tech Doesn't Solve The Problem

I read with great interest this month's Fast Company cover story "Inside Obama's Stealth Startup," which is available free online in its entirety.
The article is about the new and promising U.S. Digital Service out of innovation hub 18F in Washington, DC. The President's idea is to hire private-sector, Silicon-Valley type tech talent into the government and then deploy it across agencies to solve urgent technology problems blocking excellent customer service.
Think of the disastrous rollout of and you get the idea immediately.
The President is on the right track with this one. This is not a political statement, but rather the result of having worked in government for upwards of a decade and watching stovepiped and overpriced individual tech departments at individual government agencies squander millions, probably billions of dollars while the rest of the organization sat by and helplessly watched.
Instead of leaving every agency to flail on its own, the government as a whole would do well to provide some form of centralized support for critical back-office functions. This is true for acquisitions, it is true for human resources, it is true for information technology and guess what? It's true for all manner of communication services as well.
We'd save money, for one thing. And we'd start to think from a much bigger-picture perspective than we have in the past. Moving us toward a state in which the federal government is viewed internally as it is externally: As a single, unified brand with specialized functions.
I have long believed that the government should be run like a lean, efficient business and have also long believed that we should function as one brand with a single brand strategy and architecture. But believe me when I tell you, I've been on the receiving end of fairly harsh criticism for just as long a time. Because consolidating functions means only one thing to those on the inside: a reduction in power. Fewer people to control, a reduced budget, and a much smaller span of control than they are used to.
The official objections sound something like this: "Our agency is too specialized to share services with others. You just don't understand how highly unique our subject matter is."
But the real sentiment, the one you hear behind closed doors, is more like the following: "Nobody's gonna tell me what to do with my money."
So President Obama is on the right track with hiring private sector, and incorporating that talent into the turgid bureaucracy that is Washington, D.C. In the end it will save a ton of money, reduce inefficiencies based in snarling power plays and impossible-to-arrive-at collaboration fantasies. 
He's right in the same way Vice President Al Gore was back in the '90s, when his "Reinventing Government" initiative birthed the Federal Communicators Network, now nearly 20 years old and still going strong.
But there's only one flaw in his thinking. It's a common one in today's society which is so technology-obsessed.
Technology alone is just a tool.
It is great to hire people with skills. But do you know what? I can reach into ten different agencies right now and pull out people with firecracker skills you wouldn't believe.
It's not about the tech. Not at all.
It is about hiring people who can lead, and then backing them up when they make tough decisions.
The U.S. Digital Service can potentially transform the entire way government does business. It can be the disruptive transformational tool that the President envisions.
But it won't do anything worth a damn unless the President insists on hiring leaders, and then putting them at the helm with lots of leeway. The distribution of talent should look something like this:
  • 20% Strategy (GS14 and above)
  • 20% Consulting (GS13-14)
  • 30% Tech (GS13-14)
  • 30% Writers (GS13-14)
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. It's as simple as knowing how organizations function, and dysfunction.
  1. Start with a decision to create this force for change.
  2. Back it with a charter that's a call to arms, for a better and more efficient way of doing government.
  3. Budget for it sufficiently - don't try to do this on the cheap.
  4. Institutionalize it across government and within agencies.
  5. Establish metrics for its success, and measure at regular intervals.
  6. Engage the public in providing regular feedback and a transparent view of what's going on.
  7. Brand it in a way that makes sense to the public.
  8. Establish customer service from the get-go.
  9. Collaborate with academia to draw in new talent, so that people work in government for a lifetime.
  10. And communicate openly and transparently how it's going - the progress toward real change.

We can make government lean, mean, and people-centric. It isn't an impossibility, not at all.
All it takes is a decision, and the determination on all our parts to back it up with action.
Photo by Karola Riegler via Flickr Creative Commons. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

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