Ready to Govern: Planning the transition into public management (fast)

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, 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, 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.


A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation

My colleague, Professor Tina Nabatchi, has published a new IBM Center for the Business of Government report: “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation“. A must-read for everyone who is working on citizen participation initiatives and wants to know if they are making an impact!

Here is an abstract of the report:

The Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative is now three years old. But is it making a difference?  Dr. Nabatchi’s report is a practical guide for program managers who want to assess whether their efforts to increase citizen participation in their programs are making a difference. She lays out evaluation steps for both the implementation and management of citizen participation initiatives, as well as how to assess the impact of a particular citizen participation initiative.

An Appendix to the report provides helpful worksheets as well. Why is evaluation of these initiatives important?  For the foreseeable future, agencies will be under great fiscal pressures.   They need to be able to both understand how to effectively engage citizens in their government, and demonstrate how effective citizen involvement contributes to better-run, more cost-effective programs.

“You Lie 2.0”: How disrespecting the protocol can get you thousands of new friends and a million dollars on social media sites

Was Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst “You Lie” last week during the presidential address to the joint session of Congress harmful or helpful to him? This is the question I asked in a not representative poll in my MPA class this Monday. 70% of my students said that it must have been harmful to him. And then we looked at the numbers.

In an unprecedented move, Wilson’s hired a new media strategist who went to work in the same night as his client had breached the protocol. The result: 50 new Twitter messages and a record increase in Twitter followers. Overnight, Mr. Wilson’s followers increased by 500% (from ~ 2,300 followers up to over 10,000 followers over night: see TwitterCounter).

Non of these developments comes as a surprise – although – a conservative Member of Congress is using these channels – which he hadn’t frequented as much and with a very different netiquette and traditional forms of messages: “Have a great Labor Day” – was his last message before the joint session of Congress.

Without a true apology to the American people or his fellow Members of Congress, Senator Wilson managed to create friends – or in the Web 2.0 lingo – picked up people where they are: on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. He mimicked the Campaign 2.0 success of his biggest foe, President Obama, and increased his fans on his congressional Facebook fanpage to over 11,000 fans.

In an interesting move, he is also equipped his Facebook campaign page – a standard profile page that you and I can create – to a donation channel using Google Checkout, without any substantial information about the issues. The main explanation on this page is: “Washington Democrats and their liberal allies want to divert attention away from the concerns about the massive government takeover of health care. In fact, they have made me their Number One target — already raising millions of dollars for my opponent. But I will not give up and I will not back down from our fight. We will not be muzzled. Will you please make a donation to help me fight back against these unwavering attacks? Thank you for standing with me in this fight.”

The result: More than $1.5 million dollars in donations following the weekend of his outburst. Granted – we do not know where these donations are coming from and we are not able to track them back to his Facebook campaign page or even back to his district for that matter. And – his opponent Sen. Rob Miller has made a few bucks himself during the same time frame. Both might be picking up supporters beyond their own playground.

What is interesting and a novelty in the arena of spinning the message is that new media experts are hired – who specifically focuses on targeting new media channels. The messages he is shooting out to the world are no longer about damage control – but about turning a wrong into a right: “I apologized to the President – I believe that is sufficient.”

In other contexts, misbehavior, breaching the protocol, or out-bursting inappropriately creates foes. Kanye West was shunned by his celebrity colleagues for jumping on stage at the VMA awards during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for her best video award – proclaiming that his friend Beyonce should have won the award. Serena Williams received a high fine of $10,500 dollars for insulting a line judge during the US Open finals on the same weekend. Both found themselves in the dog house — and as expected and traditionally the norm – both apologized profoundly, not only directly to the person they harmed, but also to the public.

While Wilson’ congressional website was overloaded with site hits and temporarily went down, it was reported that it was also target of a Denial of Service (DDOS) attack and a slim version without graphics is now back up.

In response to the Congress’ resolution on Tuesday, Congressman Wilson tweets: “Despite Congress’ actions today, I will not back down from speaking the truth. Please stand with me”.

Overall, what we can observe is an immense upheaval of social media tools, a medium that has become the message and a money-for-issue exchange. Social media tools are providing a payoff to catering to the fringe and are facilitating extreme polarization in Congress – and thereby giving a voice to those who were already loud – but not necessarily right. An addition to viral messages of the birthers, death panelists, and now “You lie” shouters. uses social media for health insurance reform reality check

According to an LA Times article, the Whitehouse is using the power of social media to start a “reality check” offensive to stop the spread of health insurance reform rumors:

The White House blasted links to the package out to more than 300,000 fans on Facebook and more than 900,000 on Twitter today. It also sent an e-mail acknowledging “scare tactics” being used to bash the programs. A few hours later, users of the social news site Digg voted Reality Check to the site’s homepage. That potentially exposes Reality Check to millions of eyeballs.

See also the Whitehouse’s blog post on the topic.

Health insurance reform
Health insurance reform

Twitter: New form of citizen participation – Tweet your senator

I just stumbled upon the “Organizing for America” website with a new feature: Constituents can send Twitter messages to their Senator by adding a zip code to their message. The goal is to alert Senators of who is supporting Obama’s health insurance plan. The Twitter messages are popping up on a Google Mashup. Here are the instructions:

Enter your zip code above and you will be re-directed to the Twitter website to send your message. Due to character limitations, one of your senators will be selected at random each time you tweet.

Government 2.0: Obama’s speech live on Facebook & Twitter (not on TV)

Obama’s Kairo speech today addressed very openly all topics the middle east (and for that matter the whole world) is dealing with. It was broadcasted live only on Facebook with a constant flow of comments by Facebook users right next to the video. I had Twitter open in Tweetie right next to it and watched the @whitehouse messages flowing in at the same time. The audio and video quality was excellent – no static, no delay:

Obama's speech live on Facebook and Twitter
Obama's speech live on Facebook and Twitter