Workforce obstacles hamper digital tech growth at agencies, study says

Agency management is mostly gung-ho about bringing new digital technology into the workplace, but hurdles such as a sluggish acquisition process and a workforce...

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Agency management is mostly gung-ho about bringing new digital technology into the workplace, but hurdles such as a sluggish acquisition process and a workforce lacking tech-related skills keep the federal government from innovating, according to a new study.

The Federal Leaders Digital Insights Study, put out by the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International, compiled its findings after hearing back from more than 500 leaders in government, mostly GS-13s and above. Their anonymous responses to the 50-question survey are reprinted below in italics. In the report, NAPA observed the following trends about digital technology in the federal workplace:

  • Finding #1: Federal managers believe in technology
  • “Without question, the ability to access agency systems from home gives me opportunities to complete assignments during non-standard work hours. This flexibility is critical to meeting deadlines and keeping customers happy.”

    An overwhelming majority of those surveyed, 93 percent, said they embraced digital technology in the workplace, and said it improved the productivity of their workforce.

    Just about three-quarters (72 percent) of federal leaders polled said they used an agency-issued smartphone and 46 percent used a similar personal device for business purposes.

  • Finding #2: Federal leaders want more technology at their agencies
  • “I don’t know what I would do without this technology. There is more technology that I want to access and use.”

    The results showed that agency leaders also wanted to access job-related online information from a variety of devices whenever they wanted — 82 percent said that online information should be available at any time and on any device, while 42 percent said their agency dedicated appropriate resources to leverage digital technology as effectively as possible.

    Nearly three-quarters said they would be more productive if their agency invested more in technology to improve access to information and 64 percent said their agency effectively used digital technology to engage employees.

  • Finding #3: Federal leaders don’t think their agencies are keeping up with technology or the private sector
  • “We need to stop pretending that most of what we do is so unique that any change in our current philosophy of how we apply new technology will make us less efficient, effective, or safe. So far all the approaches to implementation are designed to perpetuate legacy processes and workflows, and management styles.”

    At least 75 percent of federal leaders said agency stakeholders would continue to push data engagement, but did’t feel their agency was keeping up with the private sector’s ability to adopt new technology. In fact, only 15 percent believed their agency was making new technology available to its employees at the same pace as the private sector.

Looking back on these observations about technology in federal agencies, the report made the following suggestions.

  • Recommendation #1: Develop and promote agency’s digital strategy
  • The report recommended agencies develop a digital strategy if they don’t already have one, and then make sure it’s available for employees &mash; 65 percent of respondents said they don’t know if their agency has a documented digital strategy, or if it was implemented.

  • Recommendation #2: Develop and promote agency’s digital strategy
  • “Use of digital technology has allowed me to telework and continue working in non-office-based settings. It is possible to send time-sensitive replies at all hours of the day and no matter my physical location (which also assists when traveling as part of work). While to some, this crosses the line of work/life balance by allowing work to intrude into home life, I find these are not my feelings for it. As my job is largely reactionary to external stakeholders and partners, it allows me to better manage my time (i.e., not sitting at a desk for eight hours in the hopes that my partners across four time zones all communicate with me during my official time).”

    The report recommended that the federal government should develop a road map toward creating a possible “workplace of the future,” centered on the most-used technological applications with a particular emphasis on boosting telework productivity. Agencies should develop written policies that defined clear expectations for technology during off-work hours and train supervisors to keep them from hassling employees with off-work, out-of-the-office tasks.

    Respondents were almost evenly split on whether telework has improved their work-life balance — 37 percent said technology improved it, while 35 percent responded that technology harmed work-life balance.

  • Recommendation #3: Build digital technology skills through training
  • “We do have a lot of employees who are so far behind in their skills in using technology of any kind, let alone digital tech.”

    The report recommended agencies recognize there are different levels of tech literacy and should work with less digital-savvy employees to build the necessary skills. Part of that approach means a hybrid of online courses, mobile learning and on-the-job-training. The Chief Human Capital Officers Council and Chief Information Officers Council, the report said, should jointly convene interagency groups to discuss lessons learned and share best practices as agencies develop training programs and establish new positions and offices.

  • Recommendation #4: Bring acquisition up to speed with technology
  • “We need knowledgeable contracting officers in place to assist with this type of acquisition. It is complicated and we are often trying to procure very technical, specific capabilities using staff that doesn’t really understand what we’re trying to do.”

    A number of respondents said the current acquisition process doesn’t match up with the speed at which new technology becomes available. Anne Rung, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator, recently released a memo that provided guidance to agencies to improve procurement for innovative technologies.


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