Misery Loves Bureaucracy: Why Technology Hasn’t Saved Government

Information-sharing tools work best in a culture of openness and collaboration.

In an era when technology offers countless ways to improve all kinds of processes, that’s not always the case in government. More often than not, new technologies don’t solve the problems government officials want to fix.

The reason for this is simple, but hard to resolve: Information-sharing technology in particular works best in a culture of openness and collaboration; bureaucratic cultures prize secrecy and hierarchy. Just introducing new tools without first changing the underlying culture in which people use the tools results in miserable, checked-out workers who drag down productivity and morale.

The technology-culture mismatch isn’t the only reason government officials are dissatisfied, but it is one of the largest. According to a recent survey of government agencies in more than 70 countries by Deloitte, 85 percent of public sector organizations cite culture as an obstacle to integrating technology. In the United States, the Office of Personnel Management’s 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed only 31 percent of employees felt creativity and innovation were valued and just 37 percent felt they had the right tools to get their jobs done.

While few would expect the federal bureaucracy to produce the happiest places to work, the level of misery is a problem. Government employees are the canaries in the national coal mine. If they’re disaffected or disengaged, productivity slows to a crawl.

And given the statistics, it looks like the United States is indeed in trouble. Gallup reported that 72 percent of the entire federal workforce falls somewhere on the spectrum of disengagement.

Worker engagement matters because it directly relates to the quality and quantity of work completed. “Engagement” is essentially what it sounds like: deeply engaged workers feel a profound connection to their jobs. As such, their actions propel their organizations forward. Their job is not just a paycheck; it’s a source of pride.

Conversely, “disengagement” falls along a spectrum from merely unhappy (employees who get their jobs done with without any extra oomph) to wretched (workers who not only dislike their work but undermine the progress of the whole office). Disengaged workers become clock-punchers, time-servers—the parking brake that slows the progress of the entire machine. Their job is not just a paycheck, it’s a source of suffering.

This is important, because this level of misery in government turns out to be extremely expensive. Gallup estimates that disengagement in the federal workforce costs approximately $9,000 per year, per worker, in lost productivity. That costs taxpayers $18 billion a year in lost productivity—greater than the combined annual budgets of the Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, misery may cost more than money. One can’t help but speculate whether workplace disengagement played some sort of role in the many high-profile screw-ups by federal agencies in recent years. And these were legion: 800,000 Americans enrolled in the Affordable Care Act received erroneous tax information, only a year after the launch of the nation’s first federally mandated healthcare service barely limped into existence, riddled with glitches. The CDC botched the transfer of Ebola specimens, putting its staff at risk of exposure to the virus, just six months after the agency came under attack for grossly mishandling several other strains of deadly pathogens. The Secret Service completely missed the fact that someone fired shots into the walls of the White House, and narrowly missed a knife-wielding intruder penetrating the innermost of the president’s chambers. The list goes on.

Of course, it’s not possible to determine if workplace disengagement was directly connected to these particular breakdowns. But they are evidence that things are indeed breaking down somewhere in the federal government, and in an alarming way.

It makes sense to bring in new tools to help government run better; however, technology too often isn’t helping bureaucracy. And I suspect the reason is because technology threatens the very foundations of the bureaucracy: its culture of hierarchy. Threatened, the system clamps down. Crushes innovation. Resists improvements. And government officials, pushed to shore up the status quo rather than apply innovations adopted by the outside world, become increasingly disaffected.

This is a recipe for disaster, because more and better communication technologies will continue to emerge. And the rigid hierarchical bureaucracy will continue to be unable to incorporate tools that undermine its very existence.

To be sure, a culture of openness and collaboration, coupled with the technology that makes information-sharing eminently possible, may not be the silver bullet that turns miserable government officials into productive, engaged ones. However, considering that technology pervades just about every aspect of the government office—from creating, sharing and archiving documents to communications—it’s hard to imagine that the tech-bureaucracy conflict doesn’t play an important part.

So while technology is indeed often the fix for antiquated systems, it requires first changing the culture. Government leaders need to do more than simply talk about openness and collaboration; they need to reward it in tangible ways. Otherwise, technology is merely a useful gimmick, a happy but temporary distraction from the root problems of secretive and siloed government cultures.

As we move ever deeper into the Information Age, the strain on the hierarchical bureaucracy will only continue. Agencies need to find ways to change their culture before they can expect new tools to truly reform operations. The welfare of workers, and ultimately, the nation, depends on it.

Alexis Wichowski teaches on media, government, and technology at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She also serves as press secretary for the City of New York’s Department of Veterans’ Services. Views expressed here are her own.