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

What Inclusivity Really Means, From The Woman Who Held The Highest Tech Job In America

Tech and science are notoriously male-dominated fields, which means girls and women interested in STEM lack powerful female role models. This predicament took a major step forward in 2014, when Barack Obama named Megan Smith the third US chief technology officer. This made her the first US CTO with technical experience (really), and also marked the first time that a woman was placed in the highest technology role in the nation.

As CTO, Smith guided the Obama administration’s information-technology policies and initiatives and continued her life-long obsession with green innovation. (She modeled her first solar house in the 1970s as a child.) She also used her platform to be an advocate for women and LGBTQ people interested in science and technology.

Prior to the White House, Smith spent over a decade as a vice president at Google, where she led the new business development team, acquiring platforms like Google Maps and Google Earth. She then co-led Google’s advanced-products team, creating SolveForX, a forum encouraging tech-based moonshot thinking and collaboration, and WomenTechmakers, a tech-diversity initiative, where she piloted unconscious bias training across Google and beyond.

“We need to know that women have always done these [technical] jobs at all...

Threats to Government Data Are Threats to Democracy

The federal government bears few responsibilities as weighty as its obligation to be a good steward of data and information. From shaping our congressional districts, to understanding students’ academic progress; from informing budget priorities and their impact on future generations, to simply knowing how many people live in the country; the quality of our policies and policymaking are contingent upon the data they’re based upon.

As an organization that relies on data, researchers at the Brookings Institution are paying close attention to the Trump administration’s management of data. Here are a few of the data sources our scholars will be watching in 2018 and beyond:

Census Bureau

If data is the lifeblood of policy, then the Census Bureau is the heart that pumps it. Not only is Census the federal government’s largest statistical agency, the data collected touches all other departments within the federal government, primarily through its official count of residents in the country.

Brookings expert Randall Akee says that in addition to the decennial Census, “Other Census Bureau products like the annual American Community Survey and the Economic Census, which provides comprehensive data on output and businesses in the U.S. every five years, should...

The Low Rate of Firing Government Employees is Not a 'Positive Sign'

The Washington Post recently cited a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board study that argued the low rate at which federal employees are fired for poor performance “could actually be a positive sign.”

The report by the agency that weighs federal employees’ disciplinary appeals contends that the number of employees removed for poor performance should not be used as a measure of an agency’s commitment to properly managing employee performance:

“If the agency is successful in preventing poor performance and addressing it when it does occur, removals would become unnecessary. In that way, a small number of performance-based removals could actually be a positive sign,” MSPB said.

“Of course, [a low firing rate] could also be indicative of an agency that fails to remove those in need of removal,” it added.

Yes, Government Has A Problem

Based on my work with more than a dozen federal agencies and having worked for the federal government for 32 years, I have to disagree with the basic premise of the report. More importantly, most federal employees also disagree since as shown in the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 34 percent agreed that steps are taken to deal with employees who...

Why Hiring the ‘Best’ People Produces the Least Creative Results

While in graduate school in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a logic course from David Griffeath. The class was fun. Griffeath brought a playfulness and openness to problems. Much to my delight, about a decade later, I ran into him at a conference on traffic models. During a presentation on computational models of traffic jams, his hand went up. I wondered what Griffeath – a mathematical logician – would have to say about traffic jams. He did not disappoint. Without even a hint of excitement in his voice, he said: ‘If you are modelling a traffic jam, you should just keep track of the non-cars.’ 

The collective response followed the familiar pattern when someone drops an unexpected, but once stated, obvious idea: a puzzled silence, giving way to a roomful of nodding heads and smiles. Nothing else needed to be said.

Griffeath had made a brilliant observation. During a traffic jam, most of the spaces on the road are filled with cars. Modelling each car takes up an enormous amount of memory. Keeping track of the empty spaces instead would use less memory – in fact almost none. Furthermore, the dynamics of the non-cars might be more amenable to analysis...

Talent Doesn’t Explain the Success of the Patriots and Eagles

The New England Patriots lost their best wide receiver to an ACL tear before the season started. Two months later, Patriots defensive captain and Pro Bowl linebacker Dont'a Hightower tore his pectoral muscle, ending his season.

In early December, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz – in the midst of a breakout season – tore his ACL.

Each team experienced enough upheaval to have derailed their seasons. Yet, each will be playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.

While many NFL analysts deal with easily observable factors – individual performance, weather, play-calling and match-ups – it’s often what can’t be seen that determines a team’s success.

Inside and outside of sports, I’ve studied what makes some teams thrive and what makes others falter. Because talent goes only so far, it’s important to evaluate a team’s structure and mindset to determine its true strength.

Having the ability to adapt to adverse or unpredictable situations plays a big role. So do “collective efficacy” – a team’s shared belief that it can attain a given goal – and “interdependence,” whether a team believes each member is valuable.

By considering these three latent team characteristics, we can...