Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina Rich Pedroncelli/AP

'Technophobic' Washington drags down government innovation, Carly Fiorina says

Former Pentagon, Silicon Valley executives explore barriers to agency change.

Because “Washington is filled with people who are somewhat technophobic,” government is not using technology as effectively as other sectors, said Carly Fiorina, the former chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Co., who has served on advisory boards for the CIA and the State and Defense departments.

Two key former Pentagon officials offered a more flattering assessment of the state of federal technology on Thursday at a forum on “Innovation for Government Effectiveness” hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Government has made progress, Fiorina said, citing the Defense Department’s drones and Vice President Biden’s “video fireside chat” on gun violence held on Thursday. But it hasn’t put technology to use to the same extent as political campaigns and the entertainment industry, as exemplified by the viewer text-in voting of the TV show American Idol.

“Whatever your political philosophy, it’s fair to say citizens’ expectation for transparency and accountability, and for their own opportunity to participate are rising,” said Fiorina, a former Republican Senate candidate from California. “Government will be providing more services with less money to go around, so the only way is to apply technology in a transformative way.”

She gave the example of a California office that verifies citizen eligibility for Medicaid. Live staffers working set hours answered phone calls on average only after 23 rings. But a new, privately designed website now gets more rapid answers to applicants who answer five brief questions online. “It means not just using technology to automate existing process, but to fundamentally change how business is done,” Fiorina said.

William Lynn, former deputy Defense secretary and now chief executive officer of DRS Technologies, said the fact that government lacks the efficiency of private business “misses the point” of government’s “long record of accomplishments in innovation.” He cited an array of cutting-edge technological feats such as NASA’s recent landing on Mars; the Navy Research labs’ work in nanotechnology; cancer and AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health; and the Energy Department’s work in wind and solar power.

“Government is a highly innovative institution, but it is not operating at the level we need it to be,” Lynn said, citing four basic restraints not faced by private sector innovators. First is government’s “sheer size, scale and scope of mission. Its 4.5 million employees is the equivalent of 15 General Electrics, spread from the space station to Antarctica, with the largest ocean fleet in the world,” Lynn said. The U.S. intelligence community “would be the envy of any research company.”

Government is also distinguished by its “world-class responsibilities” for 320 million people, and a billion more protected by treaties. “These can’t be negotiated, redirected or wished away,” nor can government research and development “be selectively turned off,” he said.

Other constraints include Congress, “which is always supportive of reform in general but opposed to specifics that affect individual members,” he said.

The government’s reward and compensation system contrasts with industry by offering less pay in return for stability, longevity and good benefits, Lynn said, adding that the system values “length of service over results.” The federal “monolithic promotion structure hinders government’s ability to attract the best and brightest,” he said. Finally, new initiatives are “hard to implement across government, and the core performance metrics are harder to identify” than in the business world.

Such barriers can be overcome, he said, in a few key “nuanced” ways. While recognizing the enormity of the challenge, government can become an “employer of choice” that delivers good products and services by highlighting its non-monetary benefits. The Pentagon, he noted, was the first agency to embrace racial and ethnic diversity, and it has strived to learn from IBM’s “culture of respect for employees’ relationships with managers and pride in the institution.”

Government could also compete favorably in providing “room to broaden intellectual and career growth,” Lynn said. That means allowing engineers to capitalize on opportunities to work in areas as diverse as space science and metallurgy. “We need to rethink the model for career paths,” he added, noting that the Millennial generation “views job security as a quaint relic of the past.” They expect job rotations, even outside of government, “a healthy degree of turnover.”

Lynn recommended that government “fix its broken relationship with Congress,” which prevents flexibility in budgeting. He would apply Base Closing and Realignment Commission procedures—which involve an expert panel recommending a plan that lawmakers then vote up or down—to reforming the military’s retirement healthcare benefits, a key cost driver.

Government service means “doing a mission for your country, it will never compete on a level playing field on pay,” Lynn said. Asked whether the current federal pay freeze impedes hiring top employees, Lynn said, “it hurts in a discreet way, but the bigger restraint is the cap on government spending on salaries driven by congressional pay. The Senior Executive Service crashes against that cap, so the compression in mid- to top levels is the more serious problem.”

A portrait of the military as a cutting-edge innovator was offered by Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff now with the CSIS: “We don’t like to say it, but wars and conflicts have a way of becoming an incubator for innovation.” He gave as an example the 21st century battlefield’s medical triage, which altered Civil War-era approaches to mass casualties to raise survival rates of injured troops from 60 percent to more than 98 percent. The conflict in Afghanistan “is the first war in history where the male population aged 18 to 35 grew,” he said. He also pointed to “predictive analytics” that allow troops with smartphones, instead of the old “trolling for trouble,” to use intelligence data to be at the right place at the right time with the right capability.

A fundamental shift in Defense strategy, Cartwright said, is “standardization of technology. We have moved away from scale and exquisite platforms.” Where World War II was fought with Armies and Vietnam with divisions, now the U.S. fights with brigades. Before, if we had a problem, “we built a platform to solve it,” he said. “But this is a cost-imposing strategy, and reality changes so fast as we move out of industrial age to information age” that the new challenge is “the ability to move knowledge, data and censors around the battlefield to adapt.

The key in man-to-machine interface is standard technologies that are “agnostic” across domains and platform,” Cartwright said, noting “Moore’s law,” which foresees obsolescence every 18 months. “We need to learn to build platforms that can be adapted in 10 to 15 years—we are almost perfect at not guessing right. Certain systems are used now in ways they weren’t designed for, but we expect some 19-year-old high school graduate to know the difference,” he said. The “leverage in the Information Age is in the cognitive realm, not in the industrial side.“

Cartwright highlighted the generation gap in technological adaptability. One young soldier he met recently asked, “Why have an iPad on the battlefield? IPads are for old people!” The 19-year-old who “grew up digital sees the culture change instantly,” he said. “It’s the middle managers who resist. This is the most difficult stuff for leaders and the senior executives.”