Bringing Innovation Culture to Government Agencies
WASHINGTON — The technology to help improve government functions is at the ready, but there is still a culture shift needed to capture the full capability digitization can bring to the federal government, policy experts discussed Thursday during a virtual event held by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Eric Egan, an e-government policy fellow for the foundation, spoke about the organizational culture change with Jeneanne Rae, a former executive with Deloitte Digital, and Alexis Bonnell, a Google executive focused on emerging technology for government and a former federal employee.
Rae and Bonnell agreed that culture — whether it’s at a company or within a federal agency — is vital for ensuring technology adds value to the work. The group focused primarily on the IT departments across the government because technology is so deeply ingrained into those departments.
“Technology is the easy part, people are actually the harder part,” Bonnell said.
Over the last decade, they’ve seen the switch to people valuing work and life balances more, as well as the shift to valuing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.
The federal government used to be able to plan 10 to 15 years into the future, but there’s since been a switch in the federal government where “change is going to happen faster,” Bonnell said.
There’s been real-time legislating to more adequately address health crises like the pandemic, as well as longer-term issues such as climate change and equity, and because of that systems tend to get stale quicker, she said.
Leaders should be “really understanding, ‘I need to plan for change, I need to build that into how I lead and look forward,’” Bonnell said.
It’s what people in Silicon Valley and the tech industry have been doing for decades, working to learn from others and bring new ideas to the table at their own companies, Rae said.
Looking and learning from others is important “so they didn’t have to recreate the wheel,” she said.
And that does not come quickly in the federal government where people are very often put into specific roles, and specific technical roles in the IT departments to help with particular systems, Bonnell said. Instead, there needs to be a more open curiosity fostered across the government to help people adapt better to using new technology..
If there isn’t that curiosity and ability to learn, some people might take that technology as a threat, Bonnell warned.
“Sometimes the best form of expertise is to be one that’s curating the new idea or making space for the new approach,” she said.
And that comes with a “beautiful humility” needed to learn something new, Bonnell added.
Change and curiosity also give the ability for leaders to say “it’s okay for us to fail,” in order to try new things, Egan said.
And that curiosity doesn’t have to mean taking huge risks, but instead calculated ones that can help build confidence to expand technology, Bonnell said.
She gave the example of an unemployment insurance company working with Google during the pandemic. The company was overwhelmed with the massive spike in claims, so they wanted to add some sort of artificial intelligence to help customers when they couldn’t hire people fast enough to help, Bonnell said.
The company knew it didn’t have employees working in the overnight hours when many people were attempting to call and make claims, she said. So, the company implemented an overnight AI answering system that responded to frequently asked questions because they felt that would be better than no response, she said.
And it worked and it gave them the confidence to look into other technologies, she concluded.