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Imagine how the federal government would operate—and what it could accomplish—if it were equipped to thrive in the 21st century. It would draw on predictive power, agile operations, and on-demand services to respond swiftly to citizen needs. It would leverage seamless shared services and robust data and analytics to deliver the outcomes they demand. And it would possess a dynamic culture that embraces technology, innovation, and continuous improvement to help the country respond to new challenges and opportunities. In short, a more modern and innovative federal government would be in a position to help the United States continue to flourish in an ever-changing world.
To help federal leaders work toward this vision, Leadership for a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in collaboration with Booz Allen Hamilton, convened senior-most leaders for The 2016 Federal Leadership Summit: Harmonizing Data, Shared Services, and Culture. Held at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. on March 3 – 4, 2016, the Summit provided an unparalleled opportunity to learn from and work with federal peers, Harvard faculty and researchers, and select industry experts on methods for adapting organizational culture to a new era of data-intensive government.
“Reforming the bureaucracy is like kicking around a forty foot sponge."
Dr. Antonio Oftelie
Executive Director Leadership for a Networked World, Quoting a 19th-century government official discussing bureaucratic reform
In the late 1990s, senior officials at Procter & Gamble realized that their firm was approaching a high-stakes inflection point. Since its inception as a family business in 1837, P&G had evolved into a global leader in manufacturing home and personal care products. However, company officials recognized that P&G would need to revamp its business model and culture to thrive in a 21st-century economy likely to be marked by rapid technological change and increasingly intense competition.
When David Bray became the CIO of the FCC in 2013, the IT division was at a crossroads. The group employed more than 200 legacy IT systems, forcing it to devote over 85 percent of its budget to operations and maintenance. Making matters worse, the FCC had had nine CIOs in the previous eight years alone...
“[Leaders can] change the culture - without talking about changing the culture - by looking at how things are done, having a clear vision of what’s possible, and embracing storytelling that creates a new narrative.”
Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management Harvard Business School
To a large extent, the challenge of how to expand the role of shared services, data and analytics, and on-demand services in the federal government will have to be addressed over the long-term. However, as David Mader, Controller of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a presentation at the Federal Leadership Summit, the upcoming Presidential election and transition also present a rare opportunity to effect change in the next year-and-a-half. It is tempting, he acknowledged, to assume that relatively little can get done in this time period, particularly because it can take a long time for political appointees with decision-making authority to arrive in their posts at federal agencies. Nonetheless, Mader encouraged Summit attendees to seize this window as an opportunity both to institutionalize reforms before the conclusion of the current administration and then to impress upon future leaders that these innovations represent the beginning of what can be accomplished in the next four to eight years. “You’ve got to take the chance,” Mader said, adding that federal officials should tell themselves and their superiors, “‘Hey, I know we can do better, and here’s how we can do better.’”
This guidance points to a broader lesson. From the U.S. military and the Muster Roll to P&G to the FCC, organizations that successfully evolve are willing to look beyond the status quo and take risks. As the framework for harmonizing strategy and culture demonstrates, this daring approach must be accompanied by a systematic strategy that blends, balances, and paces organizational imperatives and cultural priorities. However, at a fundamental level, the ability to improve stems from a leader, a staff, and a stakeholder group that is willing to be bold and treat occasional setbacks as learning opportunities. Because as Mader pointed out, former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.”
Thus, as federal officials work to internalize and implement the takeaways from the 2016 Federal Leadership Summit, they would do well to study the key points from the FCC and P&G case studies as well as the details of the framework for harmonizing strategy and culture. However, they also need to embrace a new mentality, one that says that risk taking is laudable, occasional failure is acceptable, and above all that the status quo, though survivable, is not desirable. This mission-driven but entrepreneurial spirit may lead to occasional frustration, and even periodic criticism, but it is also the only way that government officials can hope to realize their missions and collectively bring change in the 21st century. To illuminate this point, Mader reminded Summit attendees of another adage from former President Kennedy. “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” he said, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Leadership for a Networked World, and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard would like to thank the Executive Leadership Group for their vision and ideas that aided the development of this Summit.
Leadership for a Networked World’s applied research, student innovation challenge, and on-campus summit programs are an initiative of Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. TECH is a hub for students, faculty, alumni, and government and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate. LNW accelerates these efforts by connecting leaders across sectors and developing cutting-edge thought leadership on innovation and organizational transformation.