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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.
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Budgeting for Mobile Computing

Federal agencies are facing substantial outlays to manage mobile computing devices as they shift from a culture of PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets. But there is a silver lining. Agencies are likely to save money if they don’t have to maintain their own systems to secure and support employee mobile devices. And vendors offer discounts for volume purchases of their software and services.                    

Providers of mobile device management tools—including Atlanta-based AirWatch, MobileIron of Mountain View, Calif., and Zenprise of Redwood City, Calif.—charge between $3 and $4 per month for client software installed on an employee’s mobile phone or tablet. AirWatch is a supplier on the Veterans Affairs Department’s initial $4.4 million mobile contract awarded in October.

That monthly fee may seem like small change until it’s applied somewhere like the Defense Department, where planners are looking to move every active-duty and reserve organization to mobile computing. Defense’s workforce includes 1.4 million active-duty troops, 1.3 million National Guard and reserve personnel, and 800,000 civilian employees—that’s 3.5 million people.

If everyone in the department needed a mobile device—the Defense Information Systems Agency envisions widespread use...

Crafting Office Culture

Office culture affects everything from employee retention to productivity, and managers have an incredible opportunity to shape that culture. In most organizations, culture is based solely on what is sold, delivered or provided. But David Vik, former culture coach at online shoe retailer Zappos and author of The Culture Secret: How to Empower People and Companies No Matter What You Sell, which is set for release by Greenleaf Book Group in February 2013, argues that culture should be deliberately structured to align with the wants, needs and demands of both employees and customers.

Vik believes that crafting a unique culture should be priority No. 1 for organizations that want to attract and retain loyal employees and customers. While federal managers may not be as concerned with “customers” in the traditional sense as private sector managers, agency leaders nonetheless have parties they are tasked with serving.

One of the first challenges of managing organizational structure, Vik says, is the fact that the concept itself is “squooshy.” Several organizations could take identical steps toward creating a certain culture, but not all will realize the same effects. This is true in part because every organization already has an existing culture, which may be...

Luddites Can Still Be Good Managers

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has a confession to make: She doesn’t use email. In fact, she says she doesn’t have any personal online accounts. “Some would call me a Luddite, [but it’s] my own personal choice,” Napolitano explains.

No doubt there are times when many of us also would like to go off the grid. And yet Napolitano’s revelation, which she made during an interview with me at a Government Executive cybersecurity conference in September, sparked some bewildered reactions among journalists and technology experts. That’s because Napolitano is the top government official in charge of protecting civilian agencies’ cyber networks from hackers and spies. You’d think someone with that job would be plugged in to the infrastructure she’s trying to defend. Nope.  

But we shouldn’t be too surprised -- or even worried. When it comes to running a Cabinet department, expertise is overrated. The qualities that matter most are more ephemeral, hard to learn and harder still to master: leadership, management acumen, the ability to govern. These are the predictors of management success; technical fluency is not. 

Consider some recent examples. Leon Panetta knew little about covert intelligence when he became CIA...

Rethinking To-Do Lists

Keeping a to-do list seems to be an almost universal business practice, particularly for managers who juggle multiple tasks. But many experts believe lists can be counterproductive, giving people a false sense of organization without the benefit of any real planning or prioritization. 

Daniel Markovitz, author of A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (Productivity Press, December 2011), wrote that to-do lists set workers up for failure for five reasons. First, they provide too many options. The human brain can handle about seven choices before it becomes overwhelmed, Markovitz writes, so a 20-item to-do list is likely to be paralyzing rather than motivating. 

Second, to-do lists tend to include a range of tasks of varying complexity. The user is bound to tick off the small projects and let the most challenging ones languish. Third, to-do tasks tend to vary in importance, allowing people to take care of top priorities while letting lower priority tasks fall by the wayside until they become top priorities. 

Fourth, lists don’t provide context. To decide which task should be tackled, a manager should know the necessary steps for completion and whether or not the required time...

Could Social Networking Kill Email in the Office?

Could social networking actually replace email and phone calls in the workplace? One agency thinks so. The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to roll out a social network next spring that will replace many of its traditional modes of communication.

The platform, called One Voice, is a pilot that other divisions of the Energy Department might adopt in the future, NNSA Chief Technology Officer Travis Howerton told a recent federal technology policy forum sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, a government-industry partnership. The initial launch will include the agency’s roughly 45,000 employees and contractors spread across 10 locations. 

Howerton described the social networking program as similar to Facebook, with a broadly accessible layer that everyone in the system can look at, as well as numerous subcommunities for employees in particular divisions or with certain expertise. Accessing the site will require extensive authentication and additional security controls will apply to specific communities that discuss sensitive information. The social networking platform will include embedded systems for instant messaging, Web conferencing and other tools.

“The way I like to describe where we’re going is today we’re chartered to make weapons of mass destruction using a weapon...