A question was posed on our blog a few weeks ago, but we had no responses. The question was:
“As the public sector faces increasing scrutiny, several ideas for improvement have been posed. System modernization is necessary in most cases, but government organizations face particular limitations, be they budgetary or legislative. What does the public sector need to do differently to improve their success? Is it management? Is it technology? Is it both? How can we help?”
Okay, so it was more than one question…but at the heart of it is: What does the public sector need to improve?
We are, of course, not the only ones asking this question. It’s not a new question at all, really. Ever since IT development has existed, there have been attempts to make it better. As technology moves forward at a constant pace, public sector entities have a peculiar set of challenges to overcome before they can catch up to due to:
- commitment to legacy systems
- budget limitations
- the need to provide service consistently (meaning downtime is not an option)
- legislative changes taking priority over technological changes/updates
- lack of unified architecture and design
In recent decades, as there has been more intertwining of private sector with public sector in government IT, the more modern business practices of non-government entities have infiltrated IT development, to some degree. The problem lies in a lack of trust, too many layers of oversight, too many “cooks in the kitchen,” and failure to follow through with intended improvements (i.e. expedited processes, more agile methodology, etc.).
So. What are some of the proposed solutions out there today that can readily promote improvements in the public sector?
When there is a culture of caution, numerous levels of oversight, and layers of red tape to cut through, it can make an IT project seem like it is stuck behind a barricade. To knock those barricades down, it may take some convincing from senior level leadership to allow less waterfall and more agile methodologies. Issues often arise when leadership feels it is too risky to use a purely agile methodology, because it can feel too undefined. They must be convinced that an agile approach is more flexible, which ultimately is in the project’s best interest, since flexibility allows for adaptation to changes, regular iterative releases, and fewer instances of blown delivery dates. Project managers should be well-versed in agile methodology and the project team should be willing to work according to the prescribed agile process. If the leap to agile is too scary, an agile/waterfall hybrid can be adapted, but an iterative approach needs to be adopted, at the least.
Competing with Private Sector.
Government IT development often relies on contract awards, either by a specific single project, or for a multi-year period to work with government employees on a system of projects, initiatives, or programs. Contracts allow for the private sector to bring its expertise into the government realm, but often times there is a period of growing pains while the new contractor learns how to work with its government counterparts. You must learn the lingo, figure out the project priorities, build rapport with the government team, negotiate office politics, and often times deal with legacy systems and numerous interfaces with off-site systems of record, and THEN deliver a product.
Good contractors can do this, weathering the initial stressors by way of lessons learned and relatable experience. New or untested contractors can really suffer through this process, however. At some point, when the going gets tough, many contractor employees will just decide to leave, rather than face the struggle, making the project lag with a high employee turnover rate. Employee retention is not just the contractor’s problem, because the public sector project is going to suffer as a result. It doesn’t have to be so difficult, but there is little incentive for those who prefer private-sector operations to stay in the face of unnecessarily complicated or unwelcoming public sector projects. Add in the age-old government vs. contractor conflict that exists in some government cultures and it’s a recipe for office wackness.
You can’t make the government culture change when you are the contractor, so that whole “building rapport” step I mentioned earlier is possibly one of the most important things a contract team needs to do to accomplish the end goal of product delivery. If you make friends with your subject-matter experts (SMEs), they will want to work with you and you will get things accomplished.
On the other hand, it is fair for public sector entities to take a look at themselves and consider changing their culture, who they hire as full time employees, and why. If they welcomed contractors as partners instead of “temporary help,” it would make the working environment less tenuous. It’s not that hard to be a decent host, especially if you’ve invited these contractors to work on-site with you. Another option is for the government organizations to offer more money to an experienced set of developers, instead of relying solely on contractors; they could retain an in-house development team that could feel more ownership of their products, and interact with contractors as a function of their role.
Fresh solutions come with attracting talent and giving them the freedom to create, allowing the kind of response to public sector needs that is purposeful, well-designed, and gets the job done while surpassing expectations. It’s also time to step up to mobile formats, applications that are more readily accessible, and to interact with social media.
So, how should the public sector attempt to attract the talent that will bring innovation to its products?
Money helps, but it’s not the only thing that inspires innovation. The challenge of solving a problem is sometimes enough. Healthy competition between teams is another option, but that is more difficult on the government dime, since you can’t feasibly pay people for failed attempts. Helping to make a difference is often inspiration enough to drive a project team to successful innovation.
Some real world examples of innovation attraction in the public sector:
The City of Philadelphia attracted innovation last year with a contest. “This year Mayor Michael Nutter decided to try a different approach to cutting crime: launching a competition. The city crafted a $100,000 challenge called FastFWD and invited entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions to crime. “We wanted to open up the solution space,” explains Story Bellows, who led the initiative for the city. “We were looking for solutions we didn’t expect and didn’t even know existed” (Eggers, Parker).