States and cities have plenty to learn from the federal government when it comes to hiring a new generation of IT workers and instilling an innovative culture in agencies, according to the public sector research director for the massive consulting firm Deloitte.
Bill Eggers released a new book on the topic this month, titled “Delivering on Digital,” calling on IT leaders and politicians at the state and local levels to follow the lead of federal programs like the U.S. Digital Service or the General Services Administration’s 18F development team.
Eggers told StateScoop that he penned the book because he was growing frustrated with the lack of IT innovation happening across governments since officials first started talking about the potential to embrace technology at the turn of the century, lamenting that “much of what many of us thought would happen back then in terms of government becoming digitized didn’t happen.” Accordingly, he spent months interviewing hundreds of government officials to get a handle on strategies that are working to bring governments into the 21st century, as part of an effort to provide “a handbook and a roadmap for governments.”
“One of the things I talk to state governments about is the fact that [workers] are not going to adapt to you, and all the rules and structures and so forth, you’re going to have to adapt to them and create an environment that’s attractive for really good technologists,” Eggers said. “When I talk to state CIOs and aspiring CIOs, that cultural difference takes up a lot of the discussion, because it’s this very different way of looking at the world, I think.”
Indeed, Eggers said states and cities lag far behind groups like 18F or the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau when it comes to attracting top tech talent. He thinks it’s crucial that agencies hire workers with a “digital mindset,” and can make simple tweaks like providing “a lax structure, a stimulating physical environment, the ability to do really great things, maybe a casual dress code” to create big changes in the type of people they can bring into government.
However, he also urges governments to tweak their hiring practices to stay competitive with startups and other tech companies.
“If it takes nine months to close the deal and bring someone in, forget about it,” Eggers said. “They’re not going to wait around that long.”
Similarly, Eggers feels agencies need to move away from trying to hire workers who will spend their entire careers in government, pointing to 18F as an example of an organization that’s able to attract top technologists because it doesn’t require them to stay in Washington, D.C., forever.
“You don’t need to create a system where people are brought in for 20, 30 years, a lot of technologists move around,” Eggers said. “And what they’ve been able to do is say, ‘Two years is great,’ it can be a temporary dream team.”
But if governments don’t put in the appropriate effort into creating a culture that’s friendly to younger workers, Eggers warns that persuading them to stay for even a brief stint could prove difficult.
“You can bring people into a bad environment, but they’d just leave and so you have to create that environment that they can flourish in,” Eggers said. “You have to provide them with the latest and greatest technology. If it’s 5-year-old technology, why would the best technologists come in?”
For all his criticisms of state and local governments, Eggers said that some officials have figured this process out, specifically at the city level. He thinks Boston and San Francisco stand at the head of the pack in terms of cities that have found the best ways to pull in talented IT thinkers in their regions.
“San Francisco is lucky to be where they are and have all those technology firms right there, but they’re trying to say, ‘What are all the ways we can take advantage of the broader ecosystem, even if we can’t hire all the people in to do that,’” Eggers said. “They’ve created an interesting program where they bring in entrepreneurs and residents to work with agencies from six to eight weeks at a time on problems and that’s been very successful.”
Yet to try these sorts of IT initiatives, Eggers believes there needs to be a “three-legged stool” of leadership within any government.
At the top, he thinks elected officials have a role to play in laying out a “top-level vision that gets people excited about the role of technology,” citing President Barack Obama’s efforts to hire leading tech thinkers in the wake of the failure of the Healthcare.gov rollout as a prime example of this strategy.
But he also sees a need for “a department head or someone else, who can champion the efforts, provide political cover, maybe go up against some of the other cabinet members when there are jurisdictional issues when trying to do things across government, and really fight for it on the political level on a regular basis.” Finally, he thinks there has to be some leadership on the ground from someone like a chief digital officer, “who’s literally in the barricades every day and is pushing this and pushing this, with the backing of the political side and the political cover.”
“When you remove one of those, it gets very difficult, and when you remove two of them, it’s very difficult to be successful, if not impossible,” Eggers said. “There’s ways of tying this digitization to what a governor or mayor may really care about. It’s up to some of the folks in the technology community and others to help make those connections better.”
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