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The Trump Administration’s Innovation Problem

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Mobile World Congress in March 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Mobile World Congress in March 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. catwalker/Shutterstock.com

Just before Labor Day, the American Technology Council—the White House task force charged with propelling government IT to a new level—issued a broad set of initial recommendations. Coming from what has widely been deemed the most unorthodox administration in recent history, it's notable that the recommendations are actually fairly orthodox and reflect a continuation of themes that have evolved on a slow but steady basis for the last three or four administrations. Cloud migration, application modernization, security assessments, and more, are all core to the report. In addition, it lays out a set of time-bounded requirements for agency action on virtually every element.

The rub, of course, comes in execution. For while the White House goal is to accelerate progress, recent history suggests that it will take a lot more than a report or White House leadership to do so. It requires a realistic assessment of why progress has not been faster, why cloud migration—more than a half dozen years since the advent of the “cloud first” policy—remains a work in progress, and what human capital, process and policy changes are essential to success. In other words, this is not just a challenge for the government technology community.

Take the council’s directive that agencies submit extensive cloud migration plans to OMB within just a few months. Continuing to press the cloud button makes eminent sense; but what is the administration doing to overcome the challenges the cloud first policy has faced since its inception? Similarly, application modernization is a crucial component of the initiative; but on some levels, the required security layers and processes are growing so thick that they are retarding the government’s ability to quickly and smartly access the wide array of applications that so clearly meet the government’s needs.In addition, the council is very clear in its recognition that reforms to the federal acquisition system are needed. To achieve that, it recommends the creation of virtual “corner stores” for cloud services.  That may be a great idea, but simply adding another option outside of the traditional acquisition process doesn’t address the underlying issues. Special authorities are great; but they only drive real change when they are normalized.

Indeed, beyond the headlines, there are many good ideas for modernizing the current processes in ways that are essential to modernizing government technology.

Take acquisition, for example. Some of those ideas were outlined by Deloitte’s Dan Helfrich in a recent speech to the National Contract Management Association. Among his recommendations was that the government dramatically open its aperture when it comes to personnel requirements and get away from resume checking. Not a new issue to be sure; but despite previous efforts at reform, personnel requirements remain overly specific and rigid, and are often out of step with the dynamics of the technology workforce. And it goes without saying that absent a smart, contemporary approach to human capital, any hope of effectively modernizing government technology will diminish substantially. As Helfrich pointed out, even Mark Zuckerberg probably wouldn’t qualify to be on many government technology contracts.

Helfrich also urged the government to more broadly adopt a “show me, don’t tell me” approach to acquisition; get rid of the reams of paper and replace them with real capability demonstrations. Again, not an entirely new idea but one that remains far too infrequently exploited. Ironically, some government colleagues have told me that this is one of the practices they so admire about Silicon Valley innovators. Well, guess what? There are a lot of innovative “traditional” companies that would greatly prefer this approach; just ask them.

In short, the American Technology Council roadmap for modernization is on the right track. That it is a track that for the most part expands that which has been done in the past is a good thing. But as is always true with such initiatives, it is essential to get past the “what” and more fully address the “how.” And that requires multi-functional and multi-sector collaboration that itself has been a challenge over the years. Yet that’s where real progress will be made.  

Stan Soloway is president and CEO of Celero Strategies, LLC. He formerly served as president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, and was deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform and director of the Defense Reform Initiative during the Clinton administration, receiving the Secretary of Defense Medals for Outstanding and Distinguished Public Service. He is a principal of the Partnership for Public Service and a member of National Contract Management Association's Executive Advisory Board.

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