Agency Leaders are Gung Ho about Going Digital. So, Where are Their Plans?

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More than two-thirds of federal leaders in a recent survey were unsure whether their agencies had a documented strategy for harnessing the power of digital technology.

By overwhelming margins, leaders in the federal government say they welcome digital technology in the workplace and are upbeat about its power to transform stodgy old offices into agencies of the future.

But that enthusiasm hasn’t necessarily translated to action or organization.

Released Tuesday, a new survey of federal leaders conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International revealed nine in 10 federal leaders reported they have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of digital technology to improve employee productivity and better serve citizens.

But nearly three years after the Obama administration published its Digital Government Strategy, some 65 percent of respondents -- many of them high-level agency leaders, program managers and executives -- were unsure whether their agencies had a documented digital strategy of their own for meeting the administration’s goals.

Beth Cobert, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, characterizes that disconnect as the gap between “will and skill.”

Agencies “want to use technology -- and innovative technology -- to solve problems and deliver services to improve the lives of the American people,” she said in a speech at a National Academy event Tuesday publicizing the report’s release. “But they're not always sure how to do that.”

The Web-based survey queried 10,000 federal leaders at the 25 largest federal agencies. Survey designers received responses from about 510 participants -- a response rate of about 5.7 percent.

Despite agency leaders’ eagerness to embrace digital, the survey revealed, they’re still skeptical about the government’s ability to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology.

A third of respondents said they don’t believe their agency is able to procure innovative technology -- and 39 percent didn’t know. And just 15 percent reported their agency is able to keep pace with the private sector in deploying new technology on the job.

But Cobert said she believes the “pro-digital” message is alive and well in government.

A long-time executive with the McKinsey consulting firm who joined government about a year ago, she spent years helping banks and retailers navigate the transition to business models rooted in digital technology.

"Unless they made the adjustment to make it essential to all elements of their operations, they were not going to succeed and thrive,” Cobert said. “As I now come to government, I see us in the midst of a similar transition.”

For now, helping agencies convert the broad dictates of the administration’s digital strategy into specific, tangible projects remains a challenge.

“As you can tell from the statistics, people know they need to do more,” Cobert said.

Cobert’s office is using PortfolioStat sessions -- face-to-face progress reports on agencies’ critical IT investments -- to make sure they’re staying on top of their digital strategies, she added.

And the good news too, Cobert said, is that OMB is already working on several of the potential trouble spots uncovered by the survey. "Smarter IT delivery" is a major management goal of the administration.

Still, agency leaders’ uncertainty about their own digital plans is troubling, some experts said.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents weren’t sure whether their agencies were actually satisfied with the return on investments of their digital projects. More than half -- 56 percent -- didn’t know whether their agencies measured such a statistic.

The percentage of respondents who don’t know about their own agencies’ plans is “startling,” said Sally Selden, a professor of management at Lynchburg College and a member of the five-person panel that drafted the survey and analyzed the results.

"There's some mixed messages here," she said. "On one hand, people are incredible receptive and embracing of technology. And on the other hand, they're not clear about the direction and the strategies their agencies are engaged in with regard to technology.”

The report accompanying the survey results called on agencies to better refine their digital strategies.

"The hope is that federal agencies are going to develop and execute digital strategies that, quite frankly, align with the overall federal government digital strategy,” Selden said. She added, “It's not just a matter of having a plan in place; it's also a matter of making sure those plans are carefully communicated to federal employees."

What about putting a new office in charge of cracking the whip?

About four in 10 respondents said their agencies had created new posts to help implement digital projects. These include directors of digital strategy, innovation offices, social media specialists and new media centers.

But that approach may have its limits.  

“Digital is not something that you can assign to just an office,” said Jeff Neal, the former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF International. “I think what we're going to see in government, is that it's going to be like assigning somebody to be the office in charge of oxygen. It's going to be such a fundamental part of the way agencies do business."

(Image via My Life Graphic/Shutterstock.com)

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