The federal government has long made use of vendors to provide everything from equipment to IT support. Today, it is expanding on that reliance and increasingly moving toward a futuristic business model that emphasizes interagency cooperation, shared services, and even shared workspaces:
- Agencies paying other agencies to do work for them, such as standing up websites or shooting video.
- Agencies pooling resources to stand up programs that touch on multiple missions.
- Departments consolidating support functions such as acquisitions and HR.
- Vendors being tasked with a wide range of not only service assignments — such as IT and communications — but also leadership assignments, such as change management.
- Open-air, modular workspaces that encourage collaboration and discourage territorial “ownership” by any employee of a single office.
Where did all of this change come from? After all most people still think of government as a lumbering, stove-piped bureaucracy, ill-equipped to meet citizens’ demands. With the advent of the Internet, that is rapidly changing:
- The first era of government was offline and decentralized. Let’s call it Government 1.0.
- The second era of government was internet-enabled but uncoordinated. Government 2.0.
- The new era of government is networked, streamlined, nimble and rapidly responsive. Let’s call it Enterprise Government, or Government 3.0.
So What’s The Problem?
While this trend might be a good thing — it certainly sounds like a good thing in some respects — it is clearly also saddled with risk:
- Technically Capable But Substantively Unqualified Staff: Permanent loss of employees who have a deep and nuanced understanding of the agency’s history, mission and goals — leading to employees at all levels who may be technically qualified but lack the ability to make informed decisions.
- A Culture of Expediency: Sacrifice of agency’s long-term goals to quick, convenient decision-making.
- Push-A-Button Management: Rather than build a skilled cadre of team members who are engaged, motivated and able to handle mission needs, we “bring in the robots” who simply do whatever we tell them, without asking why. There is nobody to challenge bad decisions.
- Fiefdoms: Consolidation of services means lack of competition for those services, and accordingly the repression of employees who will lack mobility from place to place. For example, if all human capital functions are consolidated into one service office, and there is an abusive supervisor at large, it will be impossible to move out of that office without leaving the government.
- Overspending: The substitute workforce charges a premium for its work, and the customer agency, preferring expediency and lacking knowledge of how much money a service should cost, accedes readily. The taxpayer is shortchanged.
- Lack of Transparency: Where is the money going? Who was responsible for making that decision? Did so much have to be spent? Who owns the open data? When the answer can be provided by opening up an agency budget, it’s easier to be transparent. But when responsibility for the books starts to be shared, things get more complicated. Not impossibly so — given that nowadays everything is stored somewhere on a computer — but potentially challenging.
- The End Of “Inherently Governmental”: As more and more tasks are taken on by outside parties, and seemingly done capably, there is a tendency to simply increase both the number and kinds of tasks. There is no internal negotiation, no scuffling: the contractor handles it. But the entire purpose of having “inherently governmental” work protected is to ensure that the government serves the interest of the people.
Fueled by the adrenaline rush of technology, it is possible that we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
But We Can’t Stop
Despite all the negatives, Enterprise 3.0 is likely only going to accelerate. For these reasons:
- Optics: People like it when the government seems to be cutting costs. Consolidation and shared services looks good, especially since the government has a reputation for waste.
- Technology: With a “save money” metric in hand, Big Data tells us exactly where funds can be redirected more efficiently to get things done. At an enterprise level, that means funding multi-agency initiatives or shared services desks rather than piecemeal programs.
- Speed: Within a typical agency, the pressure is normally towards inertia, because change is experienced as inherently negative. This is why staff-initiated projects often die on the vine. Outsourcing, shared efforts, and cooperative initiatives move the change factor outside the agency, creating less risk of internal derailment.
Maximizing The Benefit — Mitigating The Risks
There are five things that need to happen in order for Government 3.0 to work:
- Transparency: It has to be very clear where money is being spent, and why. This can be accomplished through public online dashboards.
- Accountability: Establishing clear roles and responsibilities is essential to avoid vague utterances and finger-pointing in case decisions go bad.
- Empowerment: In an environment of rapid and unpredictable change, employee feedback is needed more than ever to keep the ship on a steady course. That means reversing the top-down leadership model and replacing it with small, matrixed organizations where every person has a say.
- Return of the Civil Service: Having a modular government can actually be quite freeing for the employee who may have otherwise been stuck in a certain job for years at a time without moving.
- Leadership: Senior executives draw a big salary, and therefore have a lot to lose. Not only that, but if they are let go, the stigma attached is huge. Money plus potential loss of status are a major deterrent to leaders taking the kind of bold actions necessary to transform the government workplace. A better way to handle leadership would be for all senior executives to occupy such spots for a temporary period, then be reassigned to the ranks. This would also create mobility for professionals who have senior leadership potential — and who, given the proper training and experience, might surprise us with what they can achieve.
All opinions my own. Photo by Daniel Iverson via Flickr (Creative Commons).