Obama’s second-term management agenda to focus on people power

Speaking before the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology at the National Academy of Sciences Thursday morning, Steven VanRoekel, the federa...

The architects of President Barack Obama’s second-term management agenda say changing the culture of the federal workforce — not just technology — is driving the administration’s efforts to make government more innovative.

Speaking before the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) at the National Academy of Sciences Thursday morning, Steven VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, also said the focus is on building on past successes to make lasting change ordinary Americans can feel in their everyday lives.

“Our key metric here is not only thinking about the plumbing of government — how are we driving better benefit there — but also how are we doing things that are knowable and feel-able with the American citizen,” he said.

VanRoekel, who was joined by Todd Park, the federal chief technology officer, provided the most detail to date on the revamped management agenda. The update is based on four pillars:

  • Effectiveness. Improving how the federal government delivers service to the public. For example, more than 57 percent of people who registered for aid in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last fall did so using mobile applications developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • Efficiency. Finding operational savings in agency’s IT programs and systems to reinvest in higher-priority areas, best exemplified by OMB’s PortfolioStat sessions.
  • Economy. Providing government datasets — such as climate, education and public-safety data — in machine-readable forms that entrepreneurs can use to develop new applications and businesses, which in turn, could spur economic growth.
  • People. Improving how the government attracts, trains and retains and optimizes the federal government. Efforts on this front, so far, include the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

The focus on people and culture is the linchpin of many of the agenda’s other pillars, Park said.

“There’s an emerging thread about people and culture being a critical enabler of all of the above,” Park said. “There is a lot of very exciting potential here.”

Culture, budget present hurdles

But changing agency culture has also proved a bit of a stumbling block, VanRoekel said.

“There’s an embedded culture in government around, ‘The way I do things in the future is the way I’ve done things in the past,'” he added.

And then there’s the budget climate.

“In this current environment where we’ve got the blunt instrument of sequestration and a lot of uncertainty for the future, it makes it really tough for people to think about … ‘How do I do multiyear investments that can drive benefits well into the future?'” VanRoekel said.

That has OMB looking at ways to consolidate resources — such as shared services, strategic sourcing and other buy-once, use-often methods.

“I think if you break down those cultural walls and start to streamline the way you do budgeting, that creates a bow wake that people can ride within,” VanRoekel said.

One positive effect of the fiscal pressures squeezing agency budgets? It reinforces the idea that investing in technology to drive efficiencies is a smart strategy, he said.

As officials set out to begin to flesh out where the management agenda heads next, Park said there’s been no shortage of “high-impact” ideas for how to improve government services. The challenge is how to prioritize them, he said.

“It’s going to be very difficult, because the ideas are all so spectacular,” he said. “But you can’t do all of these things, simultaneously. You can’t do them all at once, and it’s going to be critically important to basically pick — based on impact — the things that would be of most benefit to the American people — and then double-down and really focus on getting those things done.

Obama announced in July he wanted to rethink his management agenda, assigning VanRoekel, Park and the new OMB Director Sylvia Burwell with leading the charge.

“This won’t be a three-ring binder we just publish and put out there and do a press release around it,” VanRoekel said at the PCAST meeting. “It will be a series of things we do from both deliverables, initiatives and culture-changing things that we want to look at from the long term.”


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