How to get (and keep) good people for good government

Federal agencies want and need to do a lot of new things in the coming year. For example, improving the online experience of agency websites and office visitors. Or making all their data coherent so they can use it for better decision-making. Or finally replacing ancient applications for which the only maintainers take Geritol breaks.

Although it often gets a bad rap, and deservedly so, sometimes a government customer experience can be breathtakingly good. I had such an experience at an outpost of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration in Gaithersburg on Friday. It was the day before my driver’s license expired. You can renew online, but since I’m rather a four-eyes I didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of getting an eye doctor’s certificate, blah blah blah.

I had myself convinced that on a Friday afternoon I’d wait hours and surely would be missing some crucial piece of paperwork. I checked in, gave my old license to the receptionist and she handed me a slip of paper with B70 on it. I was to wait for my number to be called, like bingo. The same system is at the D.C. Traffic Court and I once waited there for three hours. Everybody was nasty.

So I sat down, fired up my MiFi and my notebook, and prepared to get some work done. No sooner had I logged on than the announcement came, “B70, window 6!” I had my new license in minutes. And it was issued by the world’s nicest lady. We chatted. I told her I had trouble passing my motorcycle road test, the sharp right turn and the cone weave. She said, “That’s ’cause you’re too tense.” I am wound sort of tight, as a matter of fact. Anyhow, I hated to say goodbye to her. How do you find people like that, so cheerful working in a giant room painted battleship gray? Even the picture on my new license is actually a good picture.

tom temin driver's license
“Even the picture on my new license is actually a good picture.”

Anyhow, what I was going to say is, for government to get consistently good at customer service, it needs the people to do so. People who know the new technologies like big data analytics, experience design, mobile app development.

At the Sunday afternoon sessions at the GITEC Summit 2016, several basic and deceptively simple ideas for getting and retaining the right talent came up.

  • Applicants, especially students, want jobs they’re excited about and will enjoy doing, and they want to be nicely compensated for it. Well, duh. Yet how often do those basic facts get lost in all of the HR mumbo-jumbo out there? That’s from Christine Routzahn, director of the career center at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. It offers a long list of courses in open source software for big data analysis.
  • Give people a chance to try different jobs. IT people may want to try and better understand, say, finance. Rotational jobs have huge appeal for new graduates. That idea came from Beth Anne Killoran, the acting CIO at Health and Human Services.
  • Find a way to bring exciting IT projects — the agile development, new programming languages, app development sorts of things — in-house instead of giving them to contractors and having your own people do the COBOL maintenance in terminal emulation. That’s from Kevin Cooke, deputy CIO at Housing and Urban Development. Killoran added, working with the HHS chief financial officer she was able to establish a $3 million investment fund to do just that.
  • Make your agency and its mission seem exciting. Lord knows, many of them are. The CIA and National Security Agency are deploying slick online videos and simulated work experience via an outfit called LifeJourney. Its president, Phil Smith, describes the company as an online experience for schools for students to test drive careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In one of the videos, the NSA explains that the path to a cybersecurity career doesn’t have to be STEM; it also looks for people with language, finance or social studies educations.
  • Protect that training and education budget. It can give much more than many private sector programs. People are naturally life-long learners. The good ones anyway. Yet how few agencies do it? That’s from former DHSer Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander, vice dean for cybersecurity and information assurance at University of Maryland University College.

You can’t single-handedly revolutionize the federal hiring process or the civil service system. But you can do a lot of things to get and keep the workforce you need.

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