Erasing the Boundaries

I applaud Dan Tangherlini’s recent address at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration in which he championed the idea that the federal government can support business innovation by being more creative and collaborative in its efforts to improve its own services and operations.

His words carry even more weight when one considers that as acting chief of the General Services Administration (GSA), Dan practices what he preaches.  Dan took over GSA in the wake of the Las Vegas conference scandal and is already beginning to implement change.  His department has adopted innovations in digital technology, tapped into crowdsourcing for new ideas and embarked on several other successful departures from business as usual.  In so doing, he has inspired other federal agencies, many of which are already following his lead.

There are many areas in which the government can not only enhance its own efficiency, but support the development of innovative American products and practices. As the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for many technology advancements, has illustrated, one of the most productive methods is through collaboration with private enterprise.  But how do managers in the federal workforce who “have always done it this way” support this new process? 

The most effective method for enabling the implementation of new ideas and partnerships is through training -- in the so called “soft skills” of communications and problem solving, in the job skills that enable smooth operations in procurement and other business areas, and in the leadership development that is vital to managing a high performing workforce.

Throughout my career as an adult learning specialist and as president and CEO of Graduate School USA, the federal government’s number one overall ranked external training resource, I have seen remarkable changes result from organizational and individual training.  One such example is the National Fair Housing Training Academy (NFHTA), operated and managed by Graduate School USA for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Since 2004, NFHTA has provided fair housing and civil rights training and education to a host of state, local, federal and private individuals working in this important field.  Trainees become uniquely qualified to enforce federal, state and local fair housing laws through a core curriculum delivered by leading subject matter experts in the area of compliance and enforcement, via classroom and/or online courses.   The NFHTA consistently receives high approval ratings for the way it serves multiple levels of government and private sector needs.

But there are other success stories. One of my favorites is the National Park Service’s Facility Manager Leaders Program.  Several years ago, the NPS faced a severe shortage of qualified facility managers due to retirements and increasing technical demands. Maintenance of national parks was a patchwork process—“when something broke, it was fixed.” This approach was increasingly less practical as park infrastructures and portfolios grew more complex.  To prepare emerging leaders for a culture shift from reactive emergency maintenance to preventive upkeep, it was critical to develop effective training.

The resulting Facility Manager Leaders Program, with its emphasis on mentoring by NPS employees, has proven a positive step.  Since its inception, nearly 60% of graduates have gone on to take positions as facility managers or chiefs of maintenance. There has been a near-40% increase in the number of preventive maintenance work orders since the program began, and indicators show an ever-increasing emphasis on managing park units for total cost of facility ownership.  Parks or units where FMLP graduates work have seen estimated benefits in the millions of dollars. The effects on our national parks have gone beyond the monetary, however, as facility management principles taught in the program have been brought “home” to the students’ parks, to the parks they visit for field experience, and to the parks of program mentors.

Again, as Tangherlini referred to the benefits of open workspace design in his address, “To make the best decisions, you need information to collaborate and problem-solve … So you erase the physical boundaries.”  I would add that you need to erase the mental boundaries as well.  And the first steps in that direction are taken through education and professional development.
Dr. Jerry Ice, CEO , ... ]

Jerry Ice, Ed.D., is CEO and President of Graduate School USA, formerly the Graduate School, USDA. Based in Washington, DC, with eight field training sites around the U.S., Graduate School USA is a full-service, nonprofit, continuing education training and academic institution. It provides classes, certificate programs, degree programs, and other offerings in subjects ranging from governmental accounting and auditing, human capital management, and acquisition to foreign languages, economics, and leadership development. For more information, visit


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