Last week, my colleagues Tina Nabatchi, Sean O’Keefe, David Van Slyke and I participated in the initial “Ready to Govern” event organized by the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government. Among the participants were colleagues from other Public Management departments around the country, practitioners from technology and consulting companies, as well as former career civil servants. The goal of the event was to identify the main management issues a new administration needs to know as soon as they take office. We were asked to take a bipartisan approach. The event was off the record, but we were encouraged to blog without attribution.
The event started out with a keynote by a high-ranking government official who reported about the second-term management innovations that are worth keeping. The current Presidential management agenda focuses on customer service, shared services, open data, smarter IT delivery, strategic sourcing, and benchmarking. While the agenda might not have changed, she highlighted that the current context in which government is operating has completely changed. She pointed especially to cybersecurity threats as well as the need to attract the brightest and smartest talent to public service. Using a new HR instrument, the current administration has created a new on-boarding tool to bring talent into government for short-term 2-year stints. These Presidential Innovation Fellows usually move back into their previous positions or might stay in government, however this tool is different than the Presidential Management Fellowship that is designed to provide a career path into government.
I was very excited to learn that especially the innovative and agile delivery of IT services through 18F plays a very prominent role in moving the Presidential management agenda forward. 18F is (located at 18th and F street in DC) home to many Presidential Innovation Fellows. I like to call them a ‘digital swat’ team. They helped for example to fix HealthCare.gov, created DOD’s Blue Button health records access, or the recent soft launch with improvements to FOIA. It is also interesting to note – at least from my perspective – that the federal government has accomplished to change the perception and potentially even the culture of government. Granted, this happens in a very small pocket of government, but it’s exciting to see that 18F attracts the best IT talent in the country. For example, the senior software architect of the NYT left the industry to join 18F recently, because his own industry is not innovating fast enough. Implied here is that he believes the federal government is a more attractive employer that is able to innovative faster. Obviously given the current arrangement the 18F fellows have to work on high profile/high impact projects, it is difficult to transfer the same environment easily to other federal agencies. But I like to think that change and innovation needs to start somewhere.
As part of the recent developments to improve basic public management practices, our keynote speaker highlighted also the strategic sourcing initiatives to make government a smarter buyer by changing the incentives to buy in bulk. One goal is to use existing data and analytics better and bring on more expertise to leverage the buying power of the federal government.
For the current administration open data plays a central role for economic development. With currently over 120,000 federal data sets published on Data.gov, the administration sees huge potential for economic development. The effort will continue to publish more data and shift the focus from mere publication to actual better use of the data. There are many (almost already ‘traditional’) success stories, such as NOAA’s weather data sets that are adding value with new business models outside of government. As an example, pilots and farmers are creating applications that are useful to them and are moving them on the market. However, the federal government wants more people to pick up the data and come up with meaningful applications.
In a world of big data analytics and the Internet of Things, I believe that government has barely scratched the surface of real-time collection and interpretation of data in the moment they are created and to use them to improve government decision-making. One of the problems to tackle is the existing data quality, (slow) decision making where to pull the data from, how to clean it up and get approval to publish the data. However, most of the issues with the data can only become apparent when people actually start to work with the data and use it. I have high hopes for the recently appointed White House Chief Data Scientist that he will have the time to make a meaningful contribution and initiate changes before the current administration rotates out of government.
After the initial keynote, it was time for us as a group to focus on getting the next management transition ‘righter’. One of the participants who was sitting next to me made a powerful statement: He said he has been part of eight Presidential transitions and it never goes smoothly. Another colleague, a former political appointee, raised the concern that every department head receives 18 binders with super urgent issues to immediately tackle, which bogs down initiatives and changes for the first six months of each administration. His wish was that each new public manager receives a short list of 3-5 issues to tackle and hit the road running, put together a team s/he trusts, focus on the department’s core mission, and get ready to tackle (new) national priorities from the start.
Our group then discussed the main management challenges a new administration has to face. We compiled an initial list that focused on those practices that we think should be kept and moved over to the next administration. We also identified a list of gaps that we think can be tackled by smart public management researchers.
I’m sure the list will come out soon – I am actually not sure if I am aloud to publish it, but there is significant overlap with the Presidential management agenda: we were concerned about fundamental management practices, such as recruiting and retaining talent, innovative management practices, etc.
My main concern is however: what if we work – in different constellations and with the input of many smart public management researchers and public managers on recommendations for the next Presidential management team and no one is listening? How do we accomplish the task to inform both Presidential candidate’s teams before they take office? Can they even communicate with us or are they too occupied to focus on political campaigning and don’t have the capacity to think beyond election day? I trust that the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government have the connections to communicate with future decision makers. My concern also highlights the wide gap between current public management research that is usually published with a 2-3 year time lag and the actual need for just-in-time research and information by policy makers and decision makers. We – researchers – need to get better at communicating more directly with the administration.
I would love to see a smooth transition that builds on the past strengths and quickly moves public management forward without losing the momentum that I have observed – especially in smart IT delivery.