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Change in Government Takes Time – But It Can Happen. Here’s How.

If you’re a millennial or a young gen-xer working for the government, it can be frustrating to see how fast technology is moving in the private sector and in your personal lives, compared to the rate of technology adoption (or lack thereof) in a government job. From antiquated procurement practices and internal workflows to uncertainty caused by leadership changes, sometimes it feels like the public sector will never catch up.

While the industry talks about cloud computing, drones, and self-driving cars, some government employees are simply wishing they had permission to access Facebook on the office network so they can manage an agency Facebook account. So what are you, a future-focused government employee, to do when facing seemingly impossible odds at moving technology forward in your organization?

For the last 8 years, I’ve had the pleasure to work on an innovative digital product team at the state government level. Our team fiercely advocated for – and achieved – a move to open source content management software, cloud hosting, and a strong social media presence, just to name a few. I can tell you that you CAN drive change in your organization. It just may not happen at the speed you would hope for. So how do you instigate that change? Here are some strategies and lessons that I’ve learned as our team has advocated for the opportunity to take new approaches to solving old problems. Regardless of the nature of the change you are proposing and scale of impact it will generate, convince yourself that no change happens without resistance.

You’ll hear no before you hear yes

Before you propose some change to your organization for the first time, prepare to be shot down. Knee-jerk “nos” from decision makers are common. Consider that a warm-up. A fact-finding mission. With that “no” should have been some sort of explanation, even if it’s not – in your opinion – a good one. Don’t let that “no” get you down – if you have a good idea, particularly if it’s been successful in other industries, it means you just need to find a new way to present your case. Figure out what influences your decision makers – what might sway them in your direction, and what would encourage them to support you. Next, give them time to think about it, even if they don’t realize they’re thinking about it. They may start to notice if others are using the same idea in other agencies or in the private sector. Maybe they’ll read an article that reminds them of your suggestion. In the meantime, you’re going to build a case around addressing their concerns. Then you will try again.  

Do your research

Know exactly what you are asking for. If you’re suggesting your organization use a new technology, you need to really do your research beforehand. What does it do? Why is it better that what you’re currently doing? Why might your decision makers be against it? Are there political reasons they might oppose the change? A misperception or misunderstanding of what the technology entails? Who else is doing it, and what’s their experience? Write a business plan, an implementation plan, a procurement plan – whatever you need to reach your decision makers. You get one chance to present your case for the first time. Make it bullet proof. If you haven’t thought it all the way through, you won’t convince anyone. But if you can back up your request with facts and case studies, no one can call your idea crazy, even if they admit it makes them uncomfortable.

Speak their language

As you are doing your research, make sure you’re learning how your proposed change will affect the things your decision makers are most concerned with. Consider whether your solution aligns with your organization’s mission and goals. But more than that, make sure you address how your solution will impact some of the key considerations your decision makers are sensitive to. If you are proposing a technology change, your decision makers will respond more positively if you consider:

  • Security – how is the technology secured, or what can you do to keep it secure?
  • Risk – no one wants to take a big risk, so you have to show where you’ve thought through potential risks and mitigation plans in adopting the change
  • Budget – how is your new technology or technique going to save the organization money over time? And if it’s NOT going to save money in some way, what benefits will it bring that outweigh the extra cash? Where will that cash come from?

Find an ally

If you can find someone in an influential position within your organization – even within a different department – to be your ally, you’ll have a much easier time achieving your goals. Your ally can help advocate for your cause, and can also help you understand the political or cultural barriers you’re up against.  

Be a pilot

Rather than asking your organization to make a wholesale shift from one tool or technique to another, volunteer to pilot the innovation on a small team, or in a small, low-risk project first. Then once you’ve proven its value and worked out any hiccups, present your success and request to scale it further. If you’re able to start with a pilot project, be sure to budget time and money for unexpected issues, and use this opportunity to fully document policies, processes, and lessons learned during the project that can be used to sell the larger shift. Measure your outcomes carefully so you can point to clear benefits with what you’ve done, and communicate those benefits along the way to anyone who will listen.

Be patient

Will all of this take more time than it might at a small startup company? Probably, yes. I’d be surprised if it didn’t. You may have heard the old analogy that it’s easier to turn a speed boat than a large ship. Large organizations don’t turn quickly like a small startup can, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It means that the public sector needs change agents like you to slowly, ever so slowly, turn that ship in the right direction so it can get where it needs to be – even if the speed boat gets there first. Remember that small changes will be easier to implement than larger ones, and change that affects the whole organization will require a broader push than something that affects a small team. Many times now I’ve seen younger staff members get frustrated at how slowly the process moves. They don’t perceive that slow shift, and so they jump ship. It’s the staff members who stay patient and keep pushing for change who reap the benefits of that change down the line. That doesn’t mean you should sit back and do nothing. Keep nudging, but be thoughtful about when to try to push the rudder and when to let the ship continue its current course.

Is it worth it?

It takes a lot of work, and a lot of bravery to stick your neck out and fight for positive change in government. But it’s worth it. With every change for which our team has advocated, we’ve seen cost savings, improvements in productivity, and even a larger scale shift towards similar practices at a broader enterprise level. It’s made our jobs more enjoyable on the small scale, and we’ve seen how those changes have improved citizen access to services on a broader scale. Without a doubt, if you see areas for improvement within your organization, I would say it’s worth the effort to push for that improvement. (Plus you get that warm fuzzy feeling inside when you’re making changes that benefit the greater good).

To Recap:

  • Don’t change for the sake of change. If you don’t believe in it, don’t do it.
  • Figure out early on who will be affected, who needs to approve this change, and what factors might resist it.
  • Have an advocacy plan. Research the history of the issue and be aware of political forces influencing decision makers.
  • Make influential allies and engage them in the process early on.
  • Measure outcomes and compare against current state.
  • Have a solid execution strategy – including resources, technology and communication plans.
  • Remember that change in government takes time. But it can happen.

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