By Steve Kelman
Aliya Sternstein recently wrote an interesting article in GovExec on how some associations with close ties to the government, such as the Air Force Association and the independent U.S. Cyber Challenge (led by former Federal CIO Karen Evans), were setting up various contests and training programs to involve young people in improving skills as cybersecurity defenders. The U.S. Cyber Challenge has both training and a contest whose winners can get scholarships to study cybersecurity. These and other organizations set up “hackathons” where young people compete with one another to defend targets against hacking.
There are obviously some potential concerns — of which the organizers are aware and which the article also discusses — that young people who learn cybersecurity defense through these kinds of programs will use their improved skills to become cyberattackers themselves. (Indeed, two participants in one of the programs were arrested in 2011 for hacking into Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
However, I bring up these efforts not specifically to discuss the cybersecurity context but rather to suggest that they are a model for an innovative way for government — in this case, indirectly — to interact with young people to help with the government’s missions. This kind of interaction also occurs when agencies use contests as a procurement tool because, surprisingly often, those entering these contests are young people who would otherwise have no real way to help agencies solve mission problems.
So I am urging agency managers to think about new ways to harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people to help in government missions, other than the traditional way of having them sign up as civil servants. The missions of government are, of course, so varied that the ideas will need to be tailored to each mission. In general, agencies that are able to accept volunteer services and that have a local presence — the National Park Service comes to mind — are obvious candidates for organizing volunteer activities for young people. But the specifics are not something that can be generated by the author of a blog post (though suggestions in the form of blog comments are welcome). They are ideas smart agency managers should develop.
There are at least two obvious benefits. The first is giving agencies new ideas and new energy from this kind of participation. The second is tying a new generation of Americans more closely to the government that serves them.
Posted on Dec 11, 2012 at 12:45 PM0 comments
The media serves an important role in government oversight, argues Steve Kelman.
Last weekend in Washington, I went with my wife and some friends to see Lincoln. The Saturday night scene at the AMC theater near Mazza Galleria was total chaos. There were several lines weaving in and out of each other, with no clear indication (such as ropes or signs) of which line was for picking up pre-purchased tickets, which for buying new tickets, and which for entering the cinema. No employee was visible to organize any of these lines or explain what was going on. There was no demarcation between the ticket/entry lines and the place for people leaving a show to exit through the lobby, so departing customers (of whom there were a significant number) had to somehow break through the various ticket customer lines.
During the chaos, one member of our party commented, “If this were government, it would be a news story.” The point was that glitches or bad performance in government is the stuff of scandal and media attention, while similar problems in the private sector may get little attention at all.
I reflected on this statement afterwards.(Actually, I told our group that I planned to blog on it immediately after the statement was made.) Here’s what I think:
The person who wants government folks to stop complaining about media coverage might note that in many ways the media (along with congressional oversight) performs a disciplining function for government that is analogous to that performed for private companies by the marketplace. It is certainly not the case that agencies are subject to strict oversight while companies get off scot-free, just because the media are more aggressive in covering government than companies – indeed, of course, many outside government complain that there is little “accountability” in government compared with business because government folks are seldom fired or go bankrupt, unlike the situation in business. In some sense, the media (along with congressional overseers and Inspectors General) act as substitutes for the marketplace as a source of discipline and control for government.
But there is a difference between media/congressional/IG oversight and marketplace oversight that does create problems for government. A crucial feature of marketplace oversight is that, while it does punish failure or incompetence, it also richly rewards performance and achievements. Some companies do go bankrupt, but others flourish. Marketplace oversight thus balances risk and reward.
However, for a whole bunch of reasons (that ultimately in some sense have to do with what citizens or politicians like to hear), the kind of oversight to which government is subject is much more focused only on criticizing the problems rather than cherishing the performers. The government equivalent of the cinema chaos does indeed get media attention, but the government equivalent of a solidly well-performing company (say a Proctor & Gamble or Wells Fargo bank) passes unnoticed, dismissed as the dog that didn’t bark.
This in turn has consequences for the way government is managed and for government performance. Government is often much more oriented towards avoiding scandals as opposed to achieving results. That is not a good thing. In movie theaters faced a similar set of incentives, the lines would probably be less chaotic, but the movies probably wouldn’t be as good.
Posted on Dec 06, 2012 at 7:45 AM3 comments
IT vendors in the federal marketplace often express a wish for a greater strategic partnership with the government customers, and lament the features of the federal marketplace that make this more difficult.
The desire to get greater value from a more strategic, trusting relationship is a good one, and there are frustrating features of the government environment -- particularly the nature of media coverage and some of the "oversight" of the system -- that do make these relationships more difficult.
However, a recent survey among corporate CIOs, published in CIO magazine -- and titled "CIOs Give Vendors Low Marks" -- suggests that the problem may not just be the government environment and just government customers. Vendors also need to improve their game.
A CIO executive council that advises the magazine defined a strategic partner as an "important vendor that has gone beyond effective delivery of systems and service to become a consistency transparent, responsive and trusted collaborator." For the purposes of the survey, various vendor practices were weighted depending how important they were to CIOs. Interestingly, the most important practice defining a strategic partner for these CIOs was "joint ventures with shared risk and reward" -- sort of like share-in-savings in a government context.
The overall results weren't awful but weren't great. On the one hand, 46% of respondents perceived their major vendors to be strategic partners as defined above. That is almost certainly higher than a comparable figure would be among feds. But the average weighted score on the various specific elements of strategic partnership was only 3.2 on a scale of 1-10.
So vendors need to examine their own behavior as well. One CIO was quoted in the article as saying that "most vendors only interact with CIOs when they are trying to sell something or when there is a problem." Sound familiar?
Posted on Nov 30, 2012 at 1:36 PM0 comments