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Conversations around digital transformation in the federal government often focus on how technology can improve government operations: how robotic process automation empowers the workforce, how mobile apps boost customer experience, or how data analytics reduces cost. Overlooked is the role of organizational culture. According to a survey of federal chief information officers (CIOs) from the Professional Services Council—a trade association for government technology and the professional services industry —“when asked about their most significant non-IT challenge, agency officials had a common response: cultural change.” In other words, successfully modernizing federal information technology (IT) also requires modernizing culture.
The pandemic forced federal agencies to innovate how they worked. Many organizations shifted to remote work for the first time, where the challenge was not necessarily teaching employees how to use Zoom (though that had some memorable hiccups) but learning how to effectively cooperate and coordinate tasks without in-person meetings. Legacy team structures that are siloed, heavily rely on in-person interactions, or have entrenched processes don’t work in an IT environment that demands adaptability, collaboration, iteration, and proactive problem-solving.
Agencies should adopt new ways of working that are conducive to change and thus better serve IT modernization. The federal government’s work-in-progress shift to Agile—a set of project management principles focused on incremental, customer-driven software development—is a step in the right direction. There are numerous versions of Agile, but all focus on responding to change through cross-functional teams that can iterate quickly. An Agile approach to project delivery contributed to the successful rollout of covidtests.gov.
But modernizing an agency’s culture is more than instituting Agile methodologies. From the Secretary to program administrators to the Chief Financial Officer, Federal leaders should combat the “that’s how it’s always been done” mindset and pivot to mentalities that understand the inevitability of change in IT and respond accordingly. This means cultivating team dynamics and work environments that actively foster collaboration, communication, curiosity, and flexibility.
A workplace that utilizes interactive digital tools like Microsoft Teams or Miro—a kind of digital whiteboard—that democratize access to information and encourage cross-functional collaboration will be more successful as a modern IT organization. Similarly, a hybrid or remote work policy offers flexibility, supports skill development with digital platforms, and promotes trust by “evaluating people on what they produce, not on how often you see them.” These cultural investments produce dividends for IT modernization.
Additionally, since having the right personnel in place enables digital transformation, top-to-bottom talent acquisition, and retainment also play a pivotal role in modernizing an agency’s culture. Agency CIO roles have traditionally experienced high turnover rates. Frequent leadership changes can be detrimental given the length of time associated with any major organizational undertaking—whether it’s Agile transformation, shifting to remote work, or embarking on a years-long system implementation. A work culture that promotes interdepartmental collaboration and buy-in—like a digital-first approach developed by all agency executives—and empowers IT leaders—like having greater agency over IT initiatives—will help retain these critical IT leaders and thus facilitate successful IT modernization overall.
Agencies should also think about how they are training existing staff and managing the pipeline for new talent when developing a culture that supports IT modernization. In alignment with the Biden-Harris Management Agenda Vision, professional development and training should offer current staff the skills to succeed in a fast-moving IT environment. The federal government is also competing with the private sector to recruit fresh tech talent. Challenging the reputation of the federal job experience from the stagnant, lifelong bureaucrat to one that emphasizes location flexibility, public service innovation, and skills development will help federal agencies compete with the Googles and Apples of the world.
IT will continue to evolve at an accelerated rate, and federal agencies will need to adapt to avoid getting stuck in old ways of thinking. As agencies continue their digital transformation journeys, now may be the time for federal leaders to consider how they can leverage interactive tools, implement collaborative project management principles, and develop talent to cultivate work environments best able to succeed in IT modernization.