What does this button do? Realizing the potential of digital tech

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com and was republished here with permission from the author.

On Feb. 4, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and ICF International released the results of our second annual Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study. The study consists of a panel report with findings and recommendations as well as detailed survey results. I served on the NAPA Panel that guided and informed the study. The panel also included:

  • Dan Chenok (Panel chair) — executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and former branch chief for Information Policy and Technology with the Office of Management and Budget
  • Gov. Parris N. Glendening — President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute and former governor of Maryland
  • Bev Godwin — senior adviser, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State
  • Nancy Potok — chief operations officer, U.S. Census Bureau
  • Andrew Whitford — Alexander M. Crenshaw Professor of Public Policy, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia
Jeff Neal, senior vice president of ICF International.
Jeff Neal, senior vice president of ICF International.

The study, based on a survey of federal leaders and several focus groups, shows the continuing acceptance of digital technology in government. Respondents not only support increased use of digital, they see clear benefits to their agencies and stakeholders. The entire study is available at this link. While there is a lot of good news, as a former Chief Human Capital Officer and a taxpayer, one finding troubles me — 62 percent of federal leaders do not believe agency employees receive adequate training on new digital technologies.

I know we want to believe technology is so intuitive that employees need no training to use it, but that simply is not true. It is even less true when new digital tech is accompanied by significant changes to work processes. If we want to get the return on our digital investment, we have to train employees on the technology and the work processes it enables. Failing to do so means an agency may get some return, but it will not get everything it pays for. It also means an agency is likely to create workforce issues because employees will become frustrated with new technology that they do not fully understand.

It is easy to blame the employees for not being able to get the hang of the new technology, but much of the responsibility rests with the agency leaders and program managers who choose to use training as a place to cut corners. I understand the thinking — if an agency puts all of its dollars into the technology itself, eventually the employees will figure it out. If only that were true. What often happens is the employees learn how to work around the parts they do not understand, or they use a small subset of the available features and never see the full potential of what their agency bought. Another limiting factor on training is workload. Even when training is offered, employees may not be able to take advantage of it. One focus group participant summed it up, saying “People need more training but they can’t do it because they are doing two jobs.”

napa graphic

It is clear that federal leaders want to continue to invest in digital technology. They have seen clear benefits to their agencies and want more. Those findings are encouraging. But if we want to get what we are paying for, we have to make certain we do not forget the human element and train the workforce. Failing to do so wastes dollars and potential.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency

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