Tips for the next administration, whoever is running it

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The next administration, whomever wins the election in November, will need to invest more heavily in the federal workforce and in digital transformation. That’s according to the advocacy group American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council, or ACT-IAC. It published a set of recommendations this week. With highlights, the vice president for strategic engagement and partnerships at the MITRE Corporation, Jim Cook joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Jim, good to have you on.

Jim Cook: Good morning. Thanks for having me this morning Tom.

Tom Temin: Tell us how this whole effort came together. This was an ACT-IAC initiative to have this kind of look ahead or set of recommendations for the incoming team, even if it’s a new Trump administration. How did you put this all together?

Jim Cook: Right, thanks. Well, as you know, ACT-IAC is a nonprofit educational organization with both government components, the American Council for Technology, and an industry component in the Industry Advisory Council. This is the fourth presidential election cycle in which we’ve pulled together insights and ideas to inform and generate discussion with the both career leaders in government and the incoming administration, again, whether it’s a second Trump or a new administration. One of my roles in ACT-IAC is I chair the Institute for Innovation. The Institute for innovation took on the charge to lead this effort for all of ACT-IAC, and we convened a group of experts. We call them the steering committee, but many names that you and your audience would be familiar with, people who have served in the last four presidential administrations. So it was a very bipartisan group. As you know, ACT-IAC is a nonpartisan organization and we decided to take a slightly different approach this time. We really tried to converge a lot of ideas around a big picture vision for government and with a clear set of recommendations in areas for potential in additional investment by government leaders and policymakers. That’s known as the capstone paper. That’s the paper that has been released today that we’re talking about. At the same time, there’s three other papers that are currently being worked on that are going to take each of the major areas of focus and drill down in a little bit more detail and make some recommendations in those areas. So this is very much a collaborative, nonpartisan effort with a lot of people with a lot of experience in both government and industry and a lot of insight.

Tom Temin: And getting down to some of the specifics, what are the areas that you recommend investing in in the next administration?

Jim Cook: Well, the the major theme of the papers is delivering outcomes, building trust. And I think it’s fairly clear how those two things relate to each other. Inability to deliver consistent outcomes is a major factor in deterioration of trust in any organization. So we believe that in order for the government to continue to enhance the ability to deliver outcomes, there’s three major areas of focus: delivering citizens centric services, transforming the national infrastructure, both physical and virtual, and creating an agile government. And so when we looked at those three major areas of focus, we said there’s five types of investments that really are kind of common to all three of those. These are not anything new, I think you’ll see that many of these elements are either incorporated in the various management agendas for this administration, past administrations, or their key strategic areas of focus. But we have some thoughts on some additional investments that could be made and additional new ways of looking at that. Looking at these areas, the five areas are data, the federal workforce, cybersecurity, intelligent automation and partnerships. Five areas where we think additional investments could be made.

Tom Temin: Partnerships. What do you mean by that and how do you invest in them?

Jim Cook: Well, so partnerships, we believe that they’re opportunities and we can leverage some of the experiences that we think have been successful in partnerships between the federal government, private sector, academic and nonprofit organizations. But we believe that there’s new ways of in investing in relationships where we can leverage private sector investments, cost sharing relationships, shifting the burden of operations and in management, and leveraging new ideas and solutions. So there’s a lot of experience with public/private partnerships around data sharing and information sharing. In aviation safety and tax administration and financial services. But we believe that there’s other opportunities to invest in or establish new partnerships between the federal government and these other sectors for things like managing risk and supply chain, for instance. So the idea here with this paper is to stimulate conversation about the possibilities and look ahead at what we could be doing, and what would need to be changed from a policy standpoint and a legislative standpoint to remove barriers or enable those changes to take place.

Tom Temin: And let’s get to the recommendations. There are four basic ones that you came up with. Let’s review those briefly.

Jim Cook: So there are four recommendations. And in some cases, these reflect priorities that already exists. But we’ve tried to identify some new opportunities or some new ideas that that we think merits some discussion and maybe some testing. The first recommendation is around building outcome focus into all aspects of management. And actually I’d say all aspects or all levels of an organization. Doing more to incentivize and have each individual in a government agency understand the role that they play and the contribution they make to the outcomes of the organization, versus simply identifying the role, the responsibilities and the activities that they perform. Management, measuring activities, and successful performance of activities is important – but outcomes matter and at the end of the day, everybody wants to know how their individual work and their individual role contributes to the larger outcomes of the organization. So we think that embedding an outcome focus in all levels of management and all levels of performance in an organization through performance measures and metrics and so forth is an important tool that ought to be looked at. The other thing that we’ve identified potentially for embedding an outcome focus in these organizations is establishing or defining a role for outcome leaders for each agency, and cross agency commitment and initiative. Outcome leaders, again, is not a new construct in the government. The FAA does this and has been doing this for many years. We’ve also seen a very recent example in the Veteran Benefits Administration to accelerate progress on a particular program, an outcome leader was identified with the decision rights and authorities and resources and the ability to take on risk for the organization and evaluate risk in order to make progress and deliver the outcome. So this is not a new construct, but it’s not widely used. And we think there’s an opportunity to widely use this outcome leaders can be temporary. They can be long term, depending upon the nature of the initiative that’s being undertaken.

Tom Temin: Sounds like a good role for the vice president, a vice president is outcome leader. I was thinking back to Al Gore during the reinvention of government who almost had that job.

Jim Cook: Right. And we believe that it should be at a senior level role, or at least somebody that is accountable to the top of the organization. So outcome leaders would be appointed by the deputy secretaries, for instance and accountable to the deputy secretary so that it has very critical top level support and invested authority. Second recommendation is creating government wide acceleration and change strategy. This is taking some some cues from some organizations in the private sector to, really again much like outcomes, embed milestones, measures and metrics into the responsibilities and roles throughout an organization to incentivize not just the acceptance of change, but incentivize the creation of change and innovation. We believe that a lot can be achieved, a lot of change and acceleration can occur from the grassroots level if people are empowered, and they’re incentivized and they’re recognized and rewarded for that. And that the barriers for change are cleared by top level leadership. So we believe a strategy for acceleration and change, and incentives that are built into roles and responsibilities would would be an important new idea. And again, this change strategy, this acceleration strategy, would be part of the President’s management council’s oversight and management responsibility across all federal agencies — so again, it has the top level support. The third recommendation is creating a government wide enterprise risk officer at OMB. Some agencies do have risk officers within the agency, but this would be across government role and not just focused on government, but a role that is actually looking at and focusing on the growing risks to government and the private sector, information operations and intellectual property to develop a whole nation approach or perspective when thinking about risk in both physical and virtual infrastructures. An enterprise risk officer, for instance, would be very much involved in looking at strategies between the government and private sector for how to maintain and refresh inventories of things like personal protection equipment and medical devices to maintain its currency and effectiveness, and also to make sure that there are contingency plans and a variety of supply chains that are in place and that the government and and the nation wasn’t just relying on supply as supply chains that were mainly overseas. So that would be the role of an enterprise risk officer and the fourth recommendation, last but probably the most important is establishing new workforce leadership models for the digital workforce. We’ve recommended that government look at creating as a routine cross government rotational opportunities for government leaders and government employees, important part of their growth, but it’s also an important part of introducing new perspectives into each agency through these rotational assignments. We’ve also recommended looking at public-private sector talent exchange opportunities. This goes well beyond the Interagency Personnel Agreement Act, the IPA mechanism that many are familiar with, and would be a regular and routine way for the private sector and the public sector to exchange talent for not just personal growth, but again, organizational growth and new idea generation.

Tom Temin: Interesting, this idea of the rotational assignment. I mean, as I understand it, the original purpose of the Senior Executive Service was to have people that were not agency or mission specific for their whole careers, but who could move around from place to place, troubleshoot and bring in new perspectives. And so maybe it’s a little bit of a Back to the Future type of idea.

Jim Cook: Well we’ve also talked about expanding that the on just the SES level, that there are technical jobs and technical skill areas like cyber security, data scientists that could benefit from rotational assignments and the agencies could also benefit from injecting some of that new talent and new perspectives into their organization. So everybody in the federal government needs cyber talent, that is a clearly shortage area. Data sciences is another area of growing interest and growing need. So the ability to move technical talent around where they can get exposed to new leadership, new missions and new delivery models, that benefits the individual, it also benefits their home organization. So we were thinking about expanding this beyond just the SES level

Tom Temin: And we point out that in an earlier career you spent quite a bit of time working with the IRS. Sometimes IRS gets knocked for its long term modernization efforts, things that haven’t worked out, but a lot did work out if you look at it long term. So how much of that thinking was in your mind as you worked on this project?

Jim Cook: Well, I unfortunately never worked as a federal employee, but I worked with the IRS and supported the IRS for over 20 years. So I got to know many of them quite well and know the the organization and the way it operated. And, and one of the things that I noted in that experience is the ability to move throughout the agency, as you pointed out, up and coming leaders to get new experiences was very powerful. Being able to do that now outside of a federal agency, so that they could learn from their colleagues and peers across the federal government, I think could create even greater value. One of the things that I believe that that helps to mitigate is any perception or belief that every federal agency is unique and the way they do things is unique and different. In fact, they have very similar needs, they operate under the same policies. And there’s a lot that a lot that you can learn from doing work in multiple agencies that can benefit you in your own career as well as benefit your home organization.

Tom Temin: Jim Cook is vice president for strategic engagement and partnerships at the MITRE Corporation, team leader for ACT-IAC. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jim Cook: Thank you for having me, Tom.

Find the report here.