Doing What Works for the Future

Why the Government Needs to Better Understand Emerging Technological Trends

Carmen A. Medina and Jitinder Kohli make the case for government reform that anticipates future trends and offer a list of trends government should keep an eye on to get the conversation started.

A BlackBerry Storm2 smartphone is displayed at the Mobile World congress in Barcelona, Spain on February 2010. Federal IT programs will be under more pressure to reduce costs by moving away from expensive IT projects and onto smarter technology while protecting citizen's information. (AP /Manu Fernandez)
A BlackBerry Storm2 smartphone is displayed at the Mobile World congress in Barcelona, Spain on February 2010. Federal IT programs will be under more pressure to reduce costs by moving away from expensive IT projects and onto smarter technology while protecting citizen's information. (AP /Manu Fernandez)

Doing What Works project website

President Barack Obama recently said at a White House forum on modernizing government in January that:

We’ve got to get the best bang for every single dollar that the government has in its possession. And when Washington lags a generation behind in how we do business that has real and serious impact on people’s lives. When we waste billions of dollars, in part because our technology is out of date, that’s billions of dollars we’re not investing in better schools for our children, in tax relief for our small businesses, in creating jobs and funding research to spur the scientific breakthroughs and economic growth of this new century.

The president underlined the need to reform the way government does business and brought together private and public sector leaders at the forum. But as the president says, the government needs to stay ahead of the times in undertaking reforms. It’s no use if government undertakes a set of reforms that make sense today but are outdated in a few years. It’s also important to keep in mind that any major changes to the structure and policies of the federal government, such as redesigns of the personnel system, will likely take several years to implement fully. If the velocity of change in technology and society only matches the pace we experienced in the last decade, government departments and agencies will be dealing with problems and conditions significantly different from those they confront today. In short, they need to be prepared for an ever-changing world and plan ahead.

It has never been more important for government reform efforts to have an operating concept of what the near future (2015-20) will look like. And yet it has likely never been more difficult to generate that picture. Most knowledgeable observers such as the ubiquitous Tom Friedman and professional futurists of the World Future Society—which advises Fortune 500 companies on future trends—agree that the world is now experiencing exponential rates of change that make predictions particularly difficult. Technological innovations that used to endure for generations now can travel from idea to obsolescence in less than a decade.

Email, for example, is already being overtaken by applications such as instant messaging and Facebook. As early as 2005, the Pew Research Center was reporting that almost half of web-using teenagers preferred instant messaging to emails, and Nielsen Online concluded in 2009 that social networking applications had become more popular than email.

A federal government determined to do what works therefore needs to do three things in the face of exponential change:

  • Develop a list of the most significant changes in the near future that it must prepare for now
  • Once the list is developed, it needs to become part of the strategic fabric of every government agency and govern the policy decisions of each agency
  • And perhaps the hardest task: develop a process that lets the government constantly revise the list to take account of new trends and innovations

Developing this list is something that needs to be done across government departments and agencies and led from within but informed by the work of those outside government. The challenge to putting the list together is that there’s no dearth of speculation on the internet as to what will be significantly different just a few years from now—the trick is to focus on those developments that will be most important to how the government functions.

Here’s a selection of four technological developments that should be on any future list for government reform plans.

Pervasive data

If you think the internet is ubiquitous today, wait until you experience a world where the status of most human beings and of every significant physical object is knowable through the internet. Many people fear this world, but government needs to address these fears while maximizing the potential of the new trends.

Private industry is already taking advantage of pervasive data to improve its functions across the supply and product delivery chains. The ability to analyze the data generated by digital ubiquity will be a real game changer for government, too, if it can adjust its policies and overcome the legal hurdles to perform such analytic work. In the same way that private industry is using the data generated by trillions of transactions to understand in unprecedented detail macroeconomic and microeconomic patterns, government will be able to analyze its transaction data, not just within departments but across agencies (anonymously, of course). These analyzes would advance government performance to new levels of effectiveness, personalization, and budgetary efficiency.

Pervasive data also means the end to the guesswork and lack of precision implied by the phrase “good enough for government work.” The Futurist magazine noted two years ago that by 2015 artificial intelligence, data mining, and virtual reality will help most companies and government agencies assimilate data and solve problems beyond the range of today’s computers. While the public seems to accept—or isn’t aware of—such data analysis by private industry, the federal government’s employment of such capabilities will rightfully be a matter of public debate.

Given how complicated the issues are with government use of such data, the government needs to lead the debate now.

Powerful mobile computing

The proliferation of smartphones and other mobile personal digital devices could be considered a subset of the pervasive data trend described above. But this dynamic needs to be called out separately because of its culture-busting implications. Pervasive data about individuals is of course impossible without internet-ready and GPS-enabled smartphones. But businesses are now building out their services to include shopping, banking, boarding passes, and identity authentication for use on mobile devices.

What this means is that in the future if you don’t communicate your necessary information via mobile devices you may not communicate at all. According to a new report issued in March by the Pew Research Center, a little more than a quarter of U.S. wireless users now get their news on their smartphones. There are differences by generation, with almost half of users under age 50 saying they are mobile news consumers compared with about 14.9 percent of respondents over 50. But the trend is clear. The transition to doing anything socially or personally significant on mobile devices will have two major effects on many levels for government. First, there is the customer service aspect. Americans who do their banking on mobile devices will understandably wonder why they can’t, for example, file noncomplicated tax forms in the same way. If government today is viewed as inefficient and wasteful imagine what perceptions will be like if it is the only institution that cannot service your needs regardless of whether you’re home, at work, or on the road. But while others may find it easier to close down nondigital channels of doing business, government will need to keep open more expensive channels for longer as its customers are more likely to be less IT savvy.

Second, the mobile revolution will also affect how employees do their jobs. Brian Reed, chief marketing officer of the software company Box Tone, expects that by next year 50 percent of all U.S. employees will want to connect their smartphones to company infrastructure to do their work. The implications of this trend for the federal government are huge because the security and privacy of citizen records—which some fear could become less so if smartphones are plugged into government networks—are not trivial concerns. What’s more, many experts believe the future of software development is in mobile applications—those small inexpensive pieces of software that run on your mobile phones. As a result, federal IT programs, already viewed as bloated and antiquated, will be under even more pressure to similarly reduce costs by moving away from large and expensive IT projects and onto smarter technology while protecting citizen’s information.

Transparent, collaborative work

Transparency and collaboration are two concepts prevalent in today’s business literature, but the real power emerges when the two ideas are combined to change how work is done. In the 20th century, we developed an approach to knowledge-based work that made experts responsible for individual projects or accounts in a more or less sequential way, with each person responsible for their stage of the project. In the last 20 years or so, the emphasis shifted to team work, but the limitations of technology meant that most work was still sequential—other members of the team did not see an individual’s effort until the project was almost complete and thus less amenable to significant changes.

Today, however, social networking technologies have the potential to revolutionize how knowledge-based work is done, and many forecasters expect this trend to mature in the next five years. (Two of the founders of Facebook, for example, are currently working on a startup, Asana, which will extend the principles of Facebook design to workplace collaboration.) Wikipedia is one familiar example of transparent collaboration on knowledge work, but cutting-edge companies across industries are already experimenting with how to organize work so that team members can see each other’s efforts early on in the creation process, when it is more effective to make suggestions.

This transparent collaboration need not occur only within the workplace. Companies are learning that collaborating with the customer makes good business sense. The airline industry, for example, has revolutionized ticketing by providing customers unprecedented transparency into their pricing structures via their websites. The clothing company Threadless allows customers to contribute and then select designs for their products. And there are some early adopters in the federal government. The Intelligence Community’s Intellipedia has introduced the principles of transparent collaboration to intelligence work by using the software behind Wikipedia. Given the push in the direction of more transparency and collaboration, the federal government will need to rise to the challenge of collaborating with the American public in policymaking and execution. The Obama administration, for example, has begun to use its blog and other outlets such as Facebook to invite public suggestions on policy issues. At the agency level the Veterans Administration recently asked veterans to provide direct feedback on its draft Gulf War Task Force report.

A federal commitment to do more of its work through transparent collaboration will also require it to become much more agile and quick in its conveyance of information. Collaborative networks don’t work if they are the last stop on the communication train, and the very speed of these networks means that groundless rumors can travel very quickly. So, for example, government agencies that first issue press releases to the traditional media and then post an update using Twitter get an “A” for intent but a failing grade in execution.

Competition for skilled talent

Forecasts based on such knowable variables as future population size are usually rock solid, and experts are unanimous that the United States will face a skilled labor shortage for the next 20 years or so. According to the Employment Policy Foundation, the United States will experience a systemic labor shortage upward of 35 million workers as the baby boomers retire. Immigration can make up some of the gap, but skilled workers are a minority of new immigrants entering the country. Additionally, many jobs in the federal government, such as those involving clearances, require U.S. citizenship. The current shortage of American engineers and scientists, for example, is already concerning directors of U.S. national laboratories.

This skilled labor shortage will make it difficult for employers to fill key jobs over the next 20 years, but the federal government may face even more hurdles if it is not seen as a “cool” place to work, to borrow President Obama’s phrase. Most labor experts agree that in the future skilled workers will demand appropriate compensation and be very particular about the design of their jobs and their work environment. Demands for flexible work schedules and work-at-home arrangements—which the federal government often already provides—are easy to meet compared to requests for personalized job design and hierarchy-free work structures. John Berry, the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, recognizes that a complete overhaul of the civil service system is necessary—one that will discard the “present system of rigid and narrow job classifications.”

The preceding was a sample list. The federal government will eventually develop one that will probably include some of these trends and perhaps some others. But the important first step is to develop a strategic framework all government agencies can begin to apply to their decisions and priorities. The sooner the federal government develops a future orientation to its reform efforts, the better positioned it will be to deal with the second- and third-order effects of these trends, particularly once they interact with each other to produce consequences we cannot anticipate from today’s vantage point.

Because change will continue to accelerate, the government will not be completely equipped to design for the future until it also develops a process to frequently revisit its own future forecasts and adjust them to emerging realities. Some capacity must be developed that allows for early identification of changes, discussion of their implications for current government programs and individual agency missions, and timely adjustment of policies and priorities.

Though this may sound ambitious, one part of the government already has a model for such an effort. The Department of Defense undertakes a congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review precisely to rebalance its strategies and capabilities in light of anticipated future developments. The QDRs are never without controversy, but they still illuminate more clearly the changing contours of the world. At a time when domestic and international conditions have never been so complex, interdependent, and variable, a similar review of future trends may be essential to having a government that works.

Doing What Works project website

Carmen A. Medina retired earlier this year after serving at the CIA for more than 30 years—the last decade as a senior executive. Her leadership positions include chief of the Strategic Assessments Group and deputy director of intelligence, the analytic organization at CIA. She favors reform of the intelligence mission to take advantage of the breakthrough capabilities offered by new technologies.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at CAP on the Doing What Works project.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow