The In Crowd

Working within and around the culture of group decision-making.

Martha Johnson, who graces the cover of this issue, has big plans for transforming the General Services Administration. But she's also well aware of the realities of operating in the federal sphere. After all, she's worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, as an assistant deputy secretary at the Commerce Department and as chief of staff at GSA for five years.

Johnson also has extensive private sector experience, making her something of an authority on the difference between the two sectors. And here's one key distinction she's noticed, which Elizabeth Newell points out in our cover story: In government, decision-making is invariably a group process. "You make a decision, then you have to tell 15 people and they have to tell 15 more, and you have to articulate it all over the place. I believe you need to be right next to the people making those decisions in real time so you don't stall on making the decisions collectively."

Her method for getting that done is the "slam," an exercise in group problem-solving that involves gathering all the people needed to address an issue in a room and closing the door until they figure out what to do. It's all in the spirit of what she calls the "Zen of change."

There are doubtless many different problems that various federal agencies face on any given day that can effectively be addressed using this approach. But there is a whole other set of issues government can address only by working with-and, increasingly, hiring-mavericks who bring a highly independent approach to their work.

Take the hackers Dawn Lim describes in her feature story this month about how agencies are forging new relationships with operators in the computer underworld. For years, the relationship between the denizens of this universe and the agencies that eyed them warily from afar was entirely adversarial.

(The favored game at hacker gatherings was called "spot the fed.") Now the agencies are trying to recruit these same computer outlaws to try to help them identify vulnerabilities in federal computer systems.

Both sides have to bend to make that process work. Federal officials are looking the other way at hackers' past extralegal exploits, and hackers are beginning to realize that a little respectability can help pay the bills.

But there's a long way to go before government has all the cybersecurity experts it needs. And when they do come aboard-either as formal federal employees or as contractors-they might not last long in an environment where group decision-making is standard operating procedure.

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