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How to Build a Next Gen Program That Works

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Next gen is a big buzzword in government right now. As with any buzzword, it’s been overused and misused, but fundamentally it signifies the pressures and changes that technology is creating for federal programs and agencies. The terms are familiar: cloud computing, ubiquitous mobility, big data, social media, open data, etc. These trends are reshaping industries, the way we live, and the way government programs and agencies plan and operate. Citizens and stakeholders expect more transparency, more data and better results.

A next gen strategy is a way to tell the story about where your program or agency is going and how it is keeping pace with technology and the times. Based on our work with federal leaders navigating this process, we have four recommendations as you undertake your effort:

Know your buzzwords and how they affect you. The rise of cloud computing, social media, big data and other technologies is reshaping the playing field for government. It’s critical that leaders understand those trends and drivers and adapt their strategies accordingly. Start by considering what those large global trends are. Next think about how those trends and drivers are affecting your stakeholders and customers, and finally how those effects should or do shape your agency or program. You are working from the outside in and from the global down to the internal. This exercise, which will help you understand the trends and drivers shaping your world, is essential to building a next gen strategy.

For instance, the Federal Railroad Administration recently announced a partnership with Google to provide grade crossing information (open data) in its Google Maps application. Almost everyone has a smartphone (ubiquitous mobility) and the vast majority of them have Google Maps (geospatial information) installed on them. (The program will also include Apple’s mapping app, Garmin, TomTom, and other mapping providers.) Drivers increasingly rely on Google Maps and its competitors to navigate as they drive. Now, with the Apple Watch, we could see more people navigating with these apps as they walk, run and cycle.

The trends of open data, ubiquitous mobility and geospatial information are allowing people to navigate more efficiently and have created the expectation that the information provided will be useful and comprehensive. FRA recognized these trends and their effects and went to where its stakeholders were -- Google -- to increase the impact the agency could have on safety.

Take advantage of the Kickstarter effect. Government agencies have seen the definition of stakeholder, customer and partner change over time. As budgets have flattened, industry has become more of a partner to be influenced rather than just a service provider. As open data has proved more useful, the definitions of customer and stakeholder have expanded. To the extent possible, these groups need to have a voice in the formation of your strategy. I call it the Kickstarter effect. Engaging with your stakeholders from the beginning creates momentum for your process and its result, and it keeps you honest. Just as fundraising on Kickstarter can build momentum for the product you are making. Of course, government leaders need to be sensitive to the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Federal Advisory Commission Act, but engaging with these stakeholders is critical. Consider using wikis or other collaborative tools like Ideascale to facilitate the process and create a record of what you’ve discussed and accomplished.

For example, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) at the Commerce Department has been charged with developing a national broadband network for public safety. The customers will be firefighters, emergency medical workers and police, among others. In planning for the network, FirstNet has spent extensive time crisscrossing the states and localities that will form its customer base. This effort will not only help inform how the network is built, but it also creates momentum for the network and its customers once it is established.

When it comes time to make decisions, it helps to have some criteria. As you go through your process to develop a next gen strategy, you will inevitably need to make some choices. In fact, I believe that if you haven’t made any choices in the process, you haven’t developed a real strategy. Resources and effort are finite, and spreading them thinly across too many initiatives or projects leads to poor results. However, making choices arbitrarily will hurt your efforts to keep partners and stakeholders on board. The solution is to develop decision criteria as part of your collaborative process. Make it clear which factors will guide decision-making, get feedback on them, and make sure all the participants understand what they are. Then you have traceability in your decision-making that makes whatever choices you make easier to defend.

For example, the National Science Foundation makes all its funding decisions based on two key criteria: intellectual merit and broader impact. The agency has built an entire methodology around those criteria with a great deal of success. With those simple criteria NSF can show impact and provide traceability and justification for any funding decisions.

Shout it from the mountaintop: There’s no point in developing a next gen strategy if know one knows about it. While taking advantage of the Kickstarter effect will help, you need to focus time and resources on communicating your vision and progress as you implement. Stakeholder attention is fickle, and if you don’t consistently make your voice heard, their attention will soon wander to other things. At Corner Alliance, we like to build communications strategies as the vision is being created, not after.

You’ll also need to communicate that message across a number of different platforms. More traditional media and outreach through conferences is still effective. However, as the example of FRA with Google Maps indicates, you need to go to where your customers, users, and stakeholders are, be it Instagram, Twitter, Periscope or LinkedIn. Get to know each of these platforms and what they can do for government. Make them your friends and your reach will increase dramatically.

For example, in 2014, the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate developed a set of visionary goals to help guide its work going forward. It backed that new vision with a series of outreach initiatives, including an interactive National Conversation on Homeland Security Technology, a social media campaign, and many traditional communications channels. That multichannel effort has helped S&T reach new audiences and is spurring innovation.

Government leader needs to articulate a strategy that accounts for the trends shaping their environment, enlists the efforts of stakeholders and partners, provides accountability for investments, and meets customers and users where they go to seek information. How is your agency or program meeting this challenge?

(Image via Jesus Sanz/Shutterstock.com)

Alan Pentz is a partner and co-founder of Corner Alliance, a Washington-based consulting firm that focuses on helping government clients build strategies to stay relevant in and capitalize on today's shifting technological landscape. He is a former Capitol Hill staffer and holds an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact him at apentz@corneralliance.com, or follow him on Twitter at @apentz

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