A 8:30 this morning, the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF released the results of the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study. It is the inaugural study designed to determine the viewpoints and perspectives of Federal government leaders about the pace with which the government is adopting, applying, and leveraging digital technology. I served as a member of the Panel that conducted the study in my role as a NAPA Fellow and as an executive at ICF.
The survey, crafted by a panel of 5 NAPA Fellows, asked about 50 questions regarding the government’s use of digital technology. We had 13 Findings and 14 Recommendations, with 3 major findings that give a broad overview of how Federal leaders view digital technology, including the results they have achieved, how employees are adapting, and how easy (or not) it is for the government to acquire needed technology.
I have to admit I was surprised by two of the Findings. First, the Luddites lost. Ninety-three percent of respondents believe digital technology has improved their productivity and that of their staff and they believe the technology helps them meet mission requirements more effectively. I can still remember working for managers who bragged that they did not have a computer on their desk. Some of those same people still resent the fact that Federal workers can use compressed work schedules or work from home. Despite their best efforts to resist change, the government has embraced digital technology and wants more of it. The second surprise was the degree to which younger and older respondents shared that view. There is clearly widespread support for digital technology across all demographics.
In addition to the surprising Findings, there were some that I expected but was still disappointed to see. First, there are very mixed opinions about the impact of technology on work/life balance. Just over 37% believe it has helped their work/life balance, while 35% believe it has harmed their work/life balance. The finding is disappointing because the impact of technology on work/life balance is controllable by agencies. The 35% said work was intruding into their lives in inappropriate ways, with managers expecting them to be available at night, on weekends and even when they were on vacation. In effect, they felt tethered to work with no ability to have downtime. The 37% who found improvement said technology had made it possible to telework, gave them more time with their families, and made it possible to be available for work in ways that could keep problems from expanding into crises. The “always on duty” perception is one agencies can deal with effectively through policy and practice. While it was disappointing to see more than a third of employees having a negative impact on their work/life balance, it is good to know that agencies can deal with the problem effectively without spending a lot of money they do not have.
Opinions on government’s ability to keep up with the pace of technological change were mixed. More than half (52%) believe they are not keeping up. Only 36% believe employees are adequately trained to use new technology, and 79% believe their processes for acquiring technology are not sufficient to meet their needs.
We (the panel) believe strongly that much can be done to improve government’s ability to acquire and use technology effectively. Training is an obvious area for improvement. Agencies cannot get the return on their technology investments when workers are not fully trained in use of the systems. Any technology acquisition should include adequate training for employees prior to implementation and follow up training as needed to keep skills current.
Acquisition is another area where agencies have the ability to make changes now. None of the panel’s 14 recommendations require the Congress to act or ask for a rewrite of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. The panel said “Agencies should adopt best practices that have been shown to improve technology acquisition. Some agencies have shown they can get good results, without substantial revisions to the FAR and DFAR, by streamlining their processes, ensuring requirements are thoroughly defined and communicated, producing statements of work that take into account latest technological advances and that industry can understand, and improving communications between requirement owners, offerors and other stakeholders.” By making internal improvements that do not require other parties to act, agencies can begin to get a return quickly.
All of the panel’s Findings and Recommendations are available in the full report, available here.