Women in Government Talk Technology and Innovation

The Women in Government is a national organization of women state legislators that provides a forum for these elected officials to address public policy issues.  This week, the Women in Government hosted a summit focused on advanced technology and innovation and I provided remarks on the evolving role of technology in government. My remarks focused on a problem that spans the borders of legislative districts, state lines and even international boundaries.  I told the legislators in the room that what I was going to tell them was not necessarily complimentary or what they wanted to hear but that it was a problem that could be addressed through effective policy and active strategy. 

At the core of the problem is the different rates of change between government and technology. Government’s aversion to change and resulting slow rate of adoption of technologies puts them at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining a cutting-edge technology workforce. There is an ongoing shift in the government IT workforce and a changing role of a government CIO, these two changes along with the conflicting rates of change in technology and government, lead to a gap. There are, of course, exceptions to this statement and I was able to highlight some really innovative policies and programs in a variety of states to address problems. 

Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025.  What’s the workforce makeup today?  The Washington Post reports that the share of under-30 workers in the federal government was at 7% in 2014.  This figure for the private sector was 25%.  The gap is evident.  Some states, such as Maine, have implemented very effective internship programs.  In Maine, their IT internship program is able to retain 70% of their interns as permanent employees.  The Wall Street journal recently pointed out that less than 3% of students listed government employers as their ideal place to work.  The perception of government as a ‘last choice employer’ can be changed through highlighting the meaningful impacts of working for the citizens and the opportunity to make a wide impact on society.  According to the Center for Digital Government, 1 in 4 government employees are eligible to retire today.  The investment in succession planning to backfill the functions of these retiring workers is severely lacking.  The economic downturn bought governments some time but strategies to recruit, attract, and retain young workers has not kept pace with the retirements that are now numerous and impactful.  The ‘silver tsunami’ is upon us.

Second, governments struggle to fit evolving technology professionals into outdated civil service bands, archaic duty statements, or technical specifications that are obsolete.  Government HR practices need to evolve, and quickly, to keep pace with changing technology professions and the civil service system does not allow for such flexibilities.  Governments themselves are not designed to be competitive because there is a lack of profit motivation in the public sector.  The private sector is more willing to make the financial investments needed to modify benefits, salaries and classifications because they see the direct benefit in their bottom line.

Partnering with the private sector is one area where we have seen some success for governments.  There are federal initiatives that seek to bring private sector technologists in to governments to help solve problems.  By partnering as opposed to owning, the private sector bringing its competitive edge to assist government in solving their technology problems.  The federal government’s 18F or U.S. digital service are examples of such partnerships and have showed success at the federal level that will be expanded to the state level.  When speaking of the Presidential Innovation Fellows that birthed the 18F program, President Obama stated, “We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.”

Partnering in more comprehensive forms involves governments recognizing their strengths and weaknesses in order to outsource weaknesses to the private sector.  This not only allows government to focus on their core competencies but also provides the public sector with motivation to most efficiently serve governments.  States such as Virginia have looked to almost completely outsource technical IT jobs to the private sector companies that count these functions among their core competencies.

My ultimate advice to the state legislators: Leverage the progress happening in other states and industries in order to better yourself. There is no one-size fits all model but when we borrow the best ideas from around governments we are able to improve government IT operations.