We Talk Tech, But We Really Need to Talk People

Nowhere are the opportunities and barriers greater than when it comes to the workforce.

September—the month that brings us both Labor Day and the Service to America Medals honoring outstanding public servants—is a good time to talk about the people who are so essential to government. But aside from an announcement from President Obama seeking a too-small (but welcome) pay raise for federal employees, that conversation has been sorely lacking in depth and scope.

Think about it this way. The government is in the early stages of a major and largely inevitable shift to the digital era. Thus far, most of the talk about that transformation has focused on the technology. We measure progress by the percentage of data centers that have been consolidated or the number of websites that have been improved. We talk about IT modernization, bringing more digital skills into government, agile development. These are valuable and important efforts. But they are only the means to much more impactful ends—including fundamental changes in how work is done. 

Nowhere are the opportunities and barriers, possibilities and implications, greater than when it comes to the workforce.

To better grasp the scope of change this shift could well evince, all we need to do is look around us. Consider, for example, the company that, with a core workforce of just 300 employees, manages tens of thousands of facilities across the globe through a set of Web-enabled, cloud-based apps, relying on a complex network of individual, local providers (electrical, HVAC, plumbing, etc.), to deliver the actual service. Think Angie’s List and Uber combined and on steroids. Or consider the company that is taking an old idea—consolidating fleets—and adding new data-driven and cloud-based capabilities to generate both better service and lower costs. Or the advent of real time, voluminous data harnessing and visualization to provide unprecedented supply chain visibility that enables almost instantaneous decision-making and problem-solving. And then think about how these functions are performed in government and the implications, from infrastructure to people, if such capabilities became even a part of the fabric of government.

These examples, and many more like them, share two common themes: they are not really about technology; rather, they are about how new technology capabilities impact even the most basic of services; and their value proposition is based in large part on replacing existing labor with technology—not a new phenomenon, but one that today has historically pronounced implications.

How do we prepare existing workforces for these changes? How do we engage them in the thinking and planning? What kinds of new career fields do we need to create—and how do we help incumbent workers adapt to them? How do we effectively re-develop and re-deploy people affected so that they are positioned for this new era and can continue to contribute in meaningful ways? These are core questions for government and its contractors, although the extent to which contractors can fully respond to them is often tied to the progressiveness of their government customers. But, overall, it's not really a conversation we are having on the scale we need to have it.

The changing nature of work and the new face of the workforce is a huge issue across the economy and it presents a range of enormous challenges, many of which are the subject of ongoing discussion and debate in the commercial sector. And when applied to the federal government, it takes on additional—and even more challenging—characteristics.

For instance, it is not difficult to imagine that, rather than the traditional battle between public sector unions and the private sector, the next version of the decades-old debate over insourcing and outsourcing could well pit existing institutional structures and workforces in the public sector (including some private sector partners) against new models of the kind cited above. We’ve already seen some small scale examples of that debate. Whether it takes place subtly or as open battle, it will be politically charged and potentially seminal. Nor is it difficult to imagine the very difficult discussions that need to be had about those aspects of the current civil service system and structure—from how we hire to how we develop, compensate and retain the right workforce—that are out of step with the demands imposed by the current and future marketplace for talent.

The shifts that are taking place across the economy are not happening just because technology has dictated them. They are happening because of the broad recognition that, done right, they can drive enormous cost savings and performance improvements. In fact, one major report last year said that, for the first time in recent history, major technology change was being driven not by the technology developers, but by large, established institutions that were growing increasingly sophisticated in their thinking about how technology could help improve their work product. Given our ongoing federal budget issues and the growing public skepticism about government, we need a similar mindset. We need to recognize that this is not just about technology; it's equally, maybe even more so, about mission delivery and people. It would be tragic if we remained stuck in an old debate without new context; if our failure to collectively tackle these fundamental issues left us unable to capitalize on the art of the possible. That’s why this is a conversation we need to have. Now.