The salient point to remember about the administration of government is that it actually has to be administrated. The administration of government often can conflict with the requirements of the citizens that the institutions service. The expectations of those citizens were heightened significantly by the Obama campaign because of the successful use of digital communities and community organizing principles.
The Obama campaign’s use of innovative approaches was crafted to get partisans engaged in donating, volunteering, or building events that would drive the campaign’s visibility and success. That was marketing. It was “What can we do for Obama?” Now, as the administration, “it” goes from marketing to customer service— meaning, “What can the Obama administration do for us?” A very different issue demanding a very different set of processes, methodologies, and strategies, though some of the same technologies can be applied.
The Obama transition team was acutely aware of this. On top of citizenry’s elevated expectations of receptive constituent services, there was the continued issue of dealing with a government that was saddled by an antiquated approach to these same highly charged, newly empowered groups of constituents.
Consequently, in late December 2008, the Obama transition team announced the formation of TIGR—the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform Working Policy Group. The group consisted of industry veterans from Google and Microsoft among others and technology leaders like Aneesh Chopra, CIO of the state of Virginia, now the CTO of the United States, and new federal CIO Vivek Kundra, then the CTO of Washington, D.C. Kundra, in a video released on the website Change.gov., succinctly identified not only the problems inherited from past administrations, but the core of the technology transformation they were tasked to lead:
Process has trumped outcome. And the biggest reason for that is that everyone is focused on compliance, no one is thinking about innovation and how to drive change in government.
Kundra went to the heart of the difficulties that government institutions have had for decades. It’s why you hear the word “bureaucracy” thrown around in conversations about the U.S. government. It’s why you hear “nonresponsive” in the same conversations—often as the companion adjective for bureaucracy. This is no small problem because the mandate for the current U.S. government is defined by transparency, collaboration, and innovation—the opposite of the mindset of many government agencies.
For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in testimony in September 2008 that “While some progress has been made in recent years, agencies still, all too often, lack the basic management capabilities needed to address current and emerging demands. As a result, any new administration will face challenges in implementing its policy and program agendas because of shortcomings in agencies’ management capabilities.”
This is particularly relevant to the IT budgets and projects of the federal government that will be a cornerstone of the new engagement strategies. If the technology backbone can’t be updated, changed, and upgraded, then the ability of constituents to actually reach the agencies or elected representatives will be severely constrained. That would be a big problem—a really big problem.
That big problem translates to big dollars. According to the Industry Advisory Council (IAC) Transition Study Group’s 2008 report, “Returning Innovation to the Federal Government with Information Technology, ”“There are nearly 500 major IT programs on the list of high-risk projects, each averaging more than $30 million. . . . Eightyfive percent of these projects are at risk of failing because of poor planning, according to OMB and GAO.” By the way, do the math and you come up with $15 billion worth of high-risk IT projects.
The management problems aren’t only related to bad management style. They’re indicative of the entrenched mindset that Kundra alluded to. Kundra’s correlation of processes to compliance and ingrained thinking is important, though it isn’t a dig at processes.
Processes can be invaluable for improved efficiency, cost reduction, and increased effectiveness if they are done well. But “done well” means that the processes make the work of the employees who use them easier to meet the needs of customers/ constituents when interacting with those constituents. Their success is not the purpose of the federal government. Significant positives outcomes are the purpose.
Though nascent, we are seeing many programs spanning an enormous range of government agencies that are providing greater avenues for those significant outcomes, meaning successful constituent inputs with results. For example, the Air Force, not exactly what you’d think of as a bastion of progressive change, created the Air Force Knowledge Now community in 2002. There are now 294, 000 registered members including (as of April 2009) every single colonel and 80 percent of the AF master sergeants. Notably, most of them are not Gen Y.
More germane to the credo of participatory democracy put forth by the Obama administration was an outreach site put up by the transition team called “The Citizen Briefing Book.” The idea of the site was to get the input of the citizenry on what issues they wanted the Obama administration to concern itself with. The site went up January 12, 2009, and was closed on inauguration day, so it had about a one-week shelf life. A citizen could present, vote, or comment on a single idea or as many as they cared to. The site was created using salesforce.com’s Ideaforce platform, one of the smartest pieces of their “platform as a service” (PaaS) offering they’ve developed to date. It wasn’t unlike other saleforce.com-generated sites such as MyStarbucksidea.com or Dell’s IdeaStorm. The 10 most popular ideas, based on inputs from the site visitors, would be presented directly to President Obama during his first day in office. On January 21, 2009, President Obama received the list and the supporting materials.
The response to the Citizen Briefing Book was excellent. According to Michael Strautmanis, director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs for the transition, over 70, 000 people participated, there were tens of thousands of ideas, and over a half million votes.
The Citizen Briefing Book is representative of the desire, intent in the early stages of a Social C(onstituent)RM 2.0 strategy, that is designed to encourage participation and provide transparency—a contradistinction to compliance as a strategy. The ultimate broad benefit for the government in making this transformation is the restoration of belief in government institutions that has been missing for so many decades.
Think that’s pie in the sky? That the Obama administration is too early on to really have this constituent engagement thing down? That there is no definitive proof that it works beyond gross numbers of hits or page views or questions asked? Think that I’d do well at fantasy baseball, since I’m clearly good at fantasizing? Let’s take a look then, oh doubters, at the government of Singapore, which has been doing this for several years. They have the hard numbers to support exactly what I’m saying above about trust in the institutions of government. But first, the story.
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