New innovative positions creating ‘cool kids club,’ officials worry

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Government needs to stop creating new positions as a blanket solution for its innovation problems, D.C. CTO Archana Vemulapalli said Thursday

Those interested in data for social good — creating impact through the use of data — gathered Thursday to discuss a recently released Georgetown University report on creating an architecture to support innovation in the next administration. And Vemulapalli noted during a panel discussion at the event that every time government tries to redefine its structure to promote innovation at the federal, state or city levels, it keeps adding positions that are setup to fail.

“I’ve noticed this tendency where new titles pop up every time,” she said. “It’s innovation, then it’s digitization, then it’s something else. Everything starts with a new position, and it is not of value. Because when these positions get created, they’re not set up for success.”

Vemulapalli seemed to push back at the notion that groups like the General Services Administration’s 18F or the U.S. Digital Service might be the be-all-end-all solution to solve government’s problems. 

Earlier in the event during another panel discussion, U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil touted the prowess of groups like those in helping big projects scale.

Patil said when teams look specifically at what aspects of projects are hindering them from scaling, “many of those times, those are people; that is why the president created the U.S. Digital Service, that is why there’s the Presidential Innovation Fellows, and 18F and the Technology Transformation Service.”

“All of those pieces tie together to give us the ability to take on problems, and then additional verticals, and scale them more aggressively,” he said.  

Vemulapalli said later that when new positions are created, they often don’t have a legislative mandate and are given only a small staff, and then “expected to perform magic.”

“So you’re setting the person you’re bringing up for frustration and failure, and they’ll want to leave in a year or two years at most,” Vemulapalli noted. “And then you’re creating a discord with the people that actually have the authority.”

She said bringing in new people makes those already in charge feel like more layers of approval have been added on top of them.

The solution, she said, is “really thinking about what role you really want to empower and empowering them correctly.”

Georgetown’s report recommends possible changes to the White House leadership structure, policy changes in procurement and many changes to improve the way government recruits personnel.

Panelist Donald Kettl, professor and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said one of his first concerns after reading the report was combatting federal personnel “reform fatigue.”

“There are so many feds out there in particular who are — they’re feeling under siege and feeling awfully lonely sometimes trying to do their jobs,” Kettl said. “And the last thing that they need is one more set of lightning bolts at the top saying ‘thou shalt go forth and do all kinds of new things.’”

He noted, “There’s so much reform fatigue out there. So the challenge is trying to figure out how to break through that.”

Partially in response to Kettl’s remarks, Vemulapalli said, “It’s very important to be careful not to create a ‘cool kids club.’”

And while there are typically good intentions around innovation in government, she said, “that’s exactly what has happened.” Often one group is created to be “change agents,” but they aren’t always made aware they should be responsible for the more difficult work as well — not just the cool projects, she said. And then the other group thinks “they aren’t cool, and they’re just keeping the lights on.”

“You’re demotivating the majority of the workforce that actually can drive much bigger change,” Vemulapalli said.

The key, Kettl said, is connecting leadership with everyone in government to get them invested in making changes.

“The key is trying to find a way to try to drive this stuff from the top to be able to connect with the people at the bottom without it seeming, ‘Oh here’s just one more overlay, one more new policy, the administration’s just up one more great idea call me when it’s over,” he said. “Because four years from now it’ll be something different.”

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Government IT News, Innovation, workforce
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