former federal CIO Steve VanRoekel at GeekWire
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DorobekINSIDER: 6 Reasons Silicon Valley Can’t Fix Government

Hey there. I’m Christopher Dorobek — the DorobekINSIDER — and welcome GovLoop’s DorobekINSIDER… where we focus on six words: Helping government do its job better.

On GovLoop’s DorobekINSIDER:

But up front: The Silicon Valley savior fallacy

There is an amazing love affair right now with Silicon Valley. It is easy to do — the Valley is the home to so much innovation… and wealth. It is awe inspiring.

That awe sometimes mutates into an idea: ‘If only Silicon Valley ran the world, the world would be much better.’ And that feeling is particularly palpable in government — and in Washington, DC, where there is so much frustration about a seeming inability to get things done.

There have been a few visible and notable examples of this Valley idolization. One came from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), during the fiasco, when McCain suggested, “Send Air Force One out to Silicon Valley, load it up with smart people, bring them back to Washington and fix this problem,” he said.

More insidious was this post coming from FlipTheMedia during something called the GeekWire Summit 2014, at which then outgoing federal CIO Steve VanRoekel was one of the speakers. This from the post: How the US CIO Saved Tech in Government:

When VanRoekel sat down at his computer on his first day, he found Windows XP waiting for him, at which point the software was a decade old. But beyond dated software, he also found that our government, which once led in tech, had “lost its way.”

Culturally, technology was seen “as this very discretionary thing” that people used to print, check email, and call the help desk; disorganization ran rampant. The Department of Agriculture had 21 different email systems (21!). The department secretary couldn’t even send mail to his staff simultaneously. Oh, and guess how much this we-don’t-need-no-centralization-of-communication mentality cost the U.S. government? 500 million dollars, and that was only in one department. THAT IS CRAZY.

Luckily for Washington, VanRoekel proved up for the task of cleaning things up – as much as he could. He schooled people about the role tech has to play in communication, governing, strategy and even customer service. He helped develop foundational policies for cloud computing, cyber security and open data. And, most importantly, the Department of Agriculture now has one cloud based email system.

The insulting concept — that Washington should be lucky to be saved by the West Coast titians who can show the error of our ways — beguiles the facts… and the challenges. Frankly, the notion just seems preposterous. It seems tantamount people who say, “why don’t they just…” The fact is there are very smart people throughout government… and if it was simply a notion of ‘why don’t they just,’ it would have been done long ago.

There are many challenges facing government. (I was recently involved in a conversation about dress code for a conference and there was a big push, mostly from government people, to dress like they do in Silicon Valley. My simple comment: There are many things to mimick about Silicon Valley. I’m not sure I would start with the dress code. How about a procurement system that enables an organization to tap into a broad, diverse universe of contractors — and then buy it… quickly.

With all of that, five things about government that the Silicon Valley can’t fix:

  • The government challenges aren’t easy — or easy to measure: Government agencies are struggling with some of the most complex, diverse problems in the world — with no easy way to measure progress. There is no balance sheet to determine success. Very few projects are black or white. Take the Department of Homeland Security’s mission of securing the borders: We certainly could close the borders altogether. Trade would come to a halt. Travel would stop. Clearly that doesn’t work. On the flip side of that coin, you can’t just do nothing leaving the borders open to anybody who wants to come through. Therefore you have people selecting what shade of gray is correct.
  • Oversight — Because somebody is always responsible for making a decision about the right shade of gray, there is always somebody — or 435 somebodys — ready to second guess that decision. Layer on that, oversight from inspector generals, so-called public interest groups, even occasionally the media, and it becomes complex.
  • Who’s the boss? And there is no person who is in charge of setting the direction and goals. Is it a senior agency official? congressional oversight committee? congressional appropriator? the White House?
  • Acquisition and procurement: As mentioned above, the government, by and large, is not able to move quickly through the procurement and acquisition process. I understand and appreciate what acquisition officials tell me over and over again: The Federal Acquisition Regulations allow you to do more than they disallow. But if that is true — and I’m dubious — why does it take a tomb to provide that kind of guidance? The government acquisition seems unnecessarily inexplicable, created more to keep companies out of participating more than inviting them to compete for interesting work. That being said, government contracting is different — and it will be different. Agencies are likely to have to give special treatment to veteran owned businesses, women owned businesses, small businesses, among others. It seems unrealistic to expect that to change — and it is a challenge that don’t impact the private sector.
  • Hiring… and firing: It is way too difficult to hire the best people, pay them well… and, by contrast, get rid of people who are not performing. (See the challenges with measurement above… furthermore see the story below in the DorobekINSIDER water cooler fodder about the challenges in getting an Ebola czar in place — the hiring process didn’t allow it.) Kudos to the Partnership for Public Service for coming the closest to making suggestions for reforming the civil service system.
  • Size: Government organizations are big. Therefore agencies tend to move slowly.

Overall, government is being asked to do too much with too little.

There are solutions, but they are also challenging because most of them involve systemic change. Yes, government needs innovation. It is not because there aren’t smart people asking those same questions — frankly, very smart, thoughtful people. The question is how we get there.

I’ll close with comments from a very smart fed who has been toiling at making change for years — and often successfully. As we were chatting about this, this comment captured it:

The worst thing that happened in the past couple of years is the portrayal of federal employee as dead weight, people to be worked around instead of lifted up. West coast: smart, DC: dumb.

The DorobekINSIDER #GovMustRead list:

  • 4 Reasons Federal Spending Will Be Higher Next Year [Stan Collender in Forbes]  The deficit; the pressure for more military spending, sequestration, Ebola
  • Sen. Tom Coburn: The 2014 Government Wastebook [Coburn release]  Gambling monkeys, dancing zombies and mountain lions on treadmills are just a few projects exposed in Wastebook 2014 – highlighting $25 billion in Washington’s worst spending of the year.  Wastebook 2014 — the report Washington doesn’t want you to read —reveals the 100 most outlandish government expenditures this year, costing taxpayers billions of dollars.  “With no one watching over the vast bureaucracy, the problem is not just what Washington isn’t doing, but what it is doing.” Dr. Coburn said. “Only someone with too much of someone else’s money and not enough accountability for how it was being spent could come up some of these projects.”  “I have learned from these experiences that Washington will never change itself. But even if the politicians won’t stop stupid spending, taxpayers always have the last word.” The full report [PDF]
  • Dude, where’s my czar? [Politico] So far, what he isn’t doing is more clear that what he IS
  • No, a Surgeon General Couldn’t Stop Ebola: The nation’s top doctor has been a powerless figurehead for a long time [Politico oped by  Mike Stobbe, an Associated Press medical writer, is author of Surgeon General’s Warning: How Politics Crippled the Nation’s Doctor]
  • Panetta clashed with CIA over memoir, tested agency review process [The Washington Post] Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta clashed with the agency over the contents of his recently published memoir and allowed his publisher to begin editing and making copies of the book before he had received final approval from the CIA, according to former U.S. officials and others familiar with the project.
  • U.S. jury convicts Blackwater guards in 2007 Iraq deaths [The Washington Post]
  • Cloud emerges as essential component in defense, intel operations [Federal Times] Defense and intelligence agencies operating missions around the world increasingly are looking to the cloud to store, organize and process operational data critical to decision-making on the ground.  The world of defense intelligence is, by nature, highly classified and secured behind the deepest layers of protections, but the technological juggernaut that is cloud is driving a change in how missions are carried out.
  • Thousands of federal workers on extended paid leave [The Washington Post] Tens of thousands of federal workers are being kept on paid leave for at least a month — and often for longer stretches that can reach a year or more — while they wait to be punished for misbehavior or cleared and allowed to return to work, government records show. During a three-year period that ended last fall, more than 57,000 employees were sent home for a month or longer. The tab for these workers exceeded $775 million in salary alone. The extensive use of administrative leave continues despite government personnel rules that limit paid leave for employees facing discipline to “rare circumstances” in which the employee is considered a threat. The long-standing rules were written in an effort to curb waste and deal quickly with workers accused of misconduct.

DorobekINSIDER water cooler fodder

Before we finish up… a few items from the DorobekINSIDER water-cooler fodder… yes, we’re trying to help you make your water-cooler time better too…

  • Obama’s Ebola Coordinator Can’t Defeat Hiring Rules: [Bloomberg Politics] Ron Klain, the man chosen by the president to act as the country’s Ebola czar, won’t actually start his new job until Wednesday [Bloomberg Politics]  The man President Barack Obama chose last week to speed the U.S. response to the Ebola virus can’t start until Wednesday.  The White House’s explanation: That’s fast for the federal government.  “It is not that long a lapse,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said. “The onboarding process usually takes a little bit longer, weeks or months.”
  • How Obama Can Salvage His Last Two Years [The Wall Street Journal oped by Thomas “Mac” McLarty,  former White House chief of staff and special envoy for the Americas under President Bill Clinton, is chairman of McLarty Associates and McLarty Companies]  Is the Obama presidency over?  The unanimous answer: not by a long shot. Every two-term president for a century has entered his last 24 months in office facing predictions of irrelevance, disarray and failure. Most have felt besieged by enemies and abandoned by some friends… But the last two years of a second term can be among the most eventful. President Reagan negotiated an arms deal with the Soviet Union. President Bill Clinton led a war in Kosovo and sealed a trade pact with China. President George W. Bush authorized the “surge” in Iraq and unprecedented steps to combat a global financial meltdown.
  • The Downsides of Generous Workplace Perks [The New York Times] Some high-tech companies offer top-shelf extras like gourmet meals and child care, but critics say this just keeps people at work longer.
  • 11 Ways to Keep Millennials in Government [GovLoop]

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