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Digital Government? Agencies Still Thinking Too Small, Study Says

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Nearly three quarters of federal officials say embracing digital technology has led to productivity gains, but precious few say they are fully leveraging new capabilities, such as data analytics and cloud computing, to wholesale transform how they do business.

What’s the hold-up? Blame the budget, heightened concerns about cybersecurity and a lack of digital-savvy government staff.

That’s according to a new survey of federal leaders conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International, which was unveiled today. The Web-based survey was sent to 10,000 federal employees. The report authors received 345 completed surveys, a response rate of 3.4 percent.

The vast majority of respondents -- 81 percent -- said their agencies are using digital technology mostly to automate existing business processes and other smaller-bore endeavors. The study included an online survey sent to federal managers and a series of focus group discussions.

Just 3 percent said their agency used digital tech “to completely re-imagine existing processes,” according to the study.

“Automating paper processes is the low-hanging fruit,” a focus group participant is quoted as saying in the study. ”I can see that re-imagining doesn’t happen as often.”

The biggest barrier to digital adoption? Most respondents cited a “lack of sufficient budget,” per the study.

"It's no surprise ... that the mother's milk of Washington, D.C., -- money -- is people's biggest concern,” said Jeff Neal, senior vice president at ICF International and a co-author of the study, during a panel discussion this morning to discuss the results.

But long-term solutions to the budget crunch remain hard to come by, and agencies may not like the workaround: Get over it.

"Money's not going to fall out of the sky,” said Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer Lisa Schlosser, who also spoke during the panel. “It's just simply not. We all know this. So, let's create our own opportunities by creating more efficiencies."

Agencies also face other challenges.

Thirty-one percent of respondents said the government lacks enough employees with appropriate digital skills, and more than half -- 56 percent of federal leaders -- said they don’t think agency employees receive adequate training on using new technologies.

That’s a particularly unfavorable combination.

“You start out with a workforce that you say doesn't have the right digital skills, and then when you deploy a new piece of tech, you don't train the employees on how to use it,” Neal said. “And then you wonder why the employees are frustrated with the new technology and why they are saying it doesn't work when the reality is they just don't know how to use it."

The report recommended the White House’s U.S. Digital Service team along with agency CIOs and HR professionals create a playbook for hiring and retaining tech talent, including strategies for better training staff and filling skills gaps.

Schlosser said one of the administration’s priorities for the year is developing the next-generation federal workforce.

“I'm not just talking about bringing in hotshot experts,” Schlosser said, a reference to the administration’s effort to bring in Silicon Valley tech talent. “I'm talking about spending time with our current amazing IT professionals in both the private and public sector and setting up training programs really enabling them to hone new skills as well as taking advantage of external experts who can come work with us side by side, bring some different expertise and move us forward."

The administration is launching a digital acquisition training course to teach agency contracting officers about agile development and other ways of buying and building IT services.

Slightly more than half of respondents -- 53 percent -- pointed to security and privacy concerns as the biggest roadblock in digital adoption.

There were some bright spots in the survey.

The percentage of federal leaders who reported productivity improvements thanks to digital technology increased 10 percentage points from last year -- from 62 percent to 72 percent.

In total, 87 percent of respondents said they wanted greater access to digital tech because they believe it will make their agencies more productive -- up from 73 percent last year.

(Image via /Shutterstock.com)

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