Goodbye clerks, hello knowledge workers

FCW reported on workforce initiatives, including the Trail Boss program, that sound quaint today

Events of the past two decades have not been kind to the image of federal workers. “Reagan was the second successive president to run against the government,” said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government. “That created a very negative message for both the public and federal workers about the value of public service.”

But there were brief moments when federal employees were cast as heroes. The governmentwide shutdown in 1995 made people appreciate government, McGinnis said. And the terrorism attacks in September 2001 led to levels of trust in government not seen since the 1950s, she said.

That goodwill, however, did not continue. With Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the failure of leaders at all levels to respond adequately, the image of the government workforce took another beating.

But information technology, as much as events, changed the image of the government workforce during the past 20 years. Clerks and secretaries disappeared, replaced by knowledge workers with specialized expertise and technical skills. Experts who study federal workplace issues have seen five trends that have had a significant effect on the federal information technology and acquisition workforce in the past 20 years.

1. The rise of the CIO transformed IT management
Before the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act created the federal chief information officer position, the lead IT authorities in government agencies were either information resource managers (IRMs) or the leaders of management information systems (MIS) departments. IT was considered a techie function that business-oriented leaders didn’t need to worry about.

Clinger-Cohen began the process of changing that mentality by insisting that agencies look at IT as an essential tool to carry out their missions. The act cemented the CIO’s leadership role.

Clinger-Cohen made the CIO the chief adviser to agency executives on IT matters.

“A lot of things had come up during the [Clinton administration’s] National Performance Review (NPR) initiative, and Clinger-Cohen was the codification of a lot of things that were being considered at that time,” said Jim Flyzik, who became the Treasury Department’s CIO in 1997. Flyzik is now president of the Flyzik Group, a consulting firm.

The Clinger-Cohen Act allowed Flyzik, empowered by the authority the legislation gave the CIO, to build strong relationships with senior executives at Treasury, including its secretary. That brought him immediate credibility in the eyes of the various Treasury bureaus.

“Prior to that, they felt they had their own relationships with the secretary and other officials, and they’d often do an end-run around the CIO,” he said.

Although the 1996 law created a specific vision of the CIO’s role within an agency, it remains largely unrealized in many agencies, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president at the IT Association of America. It’s still a work in progress.

“But going from an IRM to a CIO did highlight the role of technology in agencies,” she said. “When all is said and done, Clinger-Cohen still marks the beginning of an incredible change in the role of technology in government.”

2. Acquisition acquires a new importance
As with IT management, acquisition 20 years ago was a basement affair. Someone in the upper levels of the hierarchy would decide what was needed and then feed the requirements down to the acquisition people, who would then complete the proper forms and make sure the needed items were delivered to the correct loading dock. Acquisition jobs were about following instructions and carrying out the necessary tasks to fill orders.

Today it’s a completely different story. Acquisition people are now part of agencies’ decision-making process, particularly for IT concerns. Others in the agency define a need, but the acquisition professional’s job is to analyze what solution best addresses that need and devise a procurement strategy that most efficiently delivers it.

The goal, said Chip Mather, a co-founder and partner at Acquisition Solutions and a retired 20-year veteran of the Air Force’s acquisition corps, is to make the acquisition office “a true strategic asset that delivers measurable value to an agency’s mission.”

There were notable milestones along the way. The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 stressed the importance of reducing unique government purchases, increasing use of simplified acquisition procedures, and obtaining goods and services faster. FASA was the beginning of the move in government toward commercial off-the-shelf procurement.

“It was driven a lot by what the Clinton administration was doing through the NPR,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform. “Before then, procurement was about government-specific, government-evolved technologies.”

FASA and other regulations “completely changed the way the IT acquisition workforce was run,” Soloway said.

3. Performance focus boosts program managers
The push to streamline the acquisition process also brought about a substantial reduction in the size of the acquisition workforce. Agencies outsourced to contractors many of the tasks once performed by government professionals. That shift and the move toward performance-based contracting, in which the government lays out the basic requirements of a procurement and leaves it to the contractor to decide how best to meet them, created a new job description.

“People in government now are more program managers than anything else,” said Larry Allen, executive vice president at the Coalition for Government Procurement. “That already makes them a more strategic component in agencies versus what they were 20 years ago, when they performed a more basic support function.”

This transition to a blended government workforce “has been massive, and it’s happened at light speed,” Mather said.

It’s also changed the skills a government acquisition specialist must have. There’s no longer such a thing as an IT specialist. The skills a program manager needs include IT but are much broader.

Program management is a career sealer in many agencies, Mather said. So few people have the needed skills at a high level that those who do have them can feel secure in their jobs.

“It’s a career field in itself,” he said. “Fewer people are being tasked to do more with less, and agencies really need this level of acquisition professional.”

4. Trail Boss passes wisdom to the next generation
Trail Boss was one of the first formal programs — perhaps appropriately, considering its name — to emerge that helped older, more experienced federal IT professionals pass on what they had learned in their careers to younger employees.

GSA discontinued Trail Boss in 1999, but efforts to revive it began almost immediately under the name Trail Boss New Horizons. The original program, launched in 1988, blazed the path for future efforts. Today, federal employees can learn in formal, structured settings at the CIO University, the Defense Acquisition University and private institutions geared to educating and credentialing government workers in a wide range of subjects.

But it’s all thanks to Trail Boss. The General Services Administration created the program as a way for senior IRM officials and IT executives to swap lessons learned and network with their peers. By the time it ended, giving way to the Strategic and Tactical Advocates for Results program, it had spawned many of the training outlets government workers now take for granted.

“Government acquisitions then were grand and complex programs; it was difficult to define requirements for them,” said Emory Miller, a former GSA executive and Trail Boss manager. “But we realized there were many success stories in government about delivering against these types of programs. There was very much an understanding by everyone that something like Trail Boss was needed.”

As it grew, Trail Boss spawned spin-off activities and led to innovations that are still considered leading-edge, including performance-based contracting.

“I chuckle about it sometimes,” said Miller, who now works at Robbins-Gioia, a management consulting firm. “Back then there were requirements that people leading acquisitions be identified as a trail boss,” a whimsical title that essentially meant program manager.

The program also had a major effect on communications between government and the private sector. In Miller’s view, before Trail Boss, there was mostly distrust, and the private sector didn’t have the information to know if it was being treated fairly.

Trail Boss was groundbreaking, Miller said, adding that without it, a lot of the progress and reform in acquisition would not have happened.

“It truly set the foundation for many of the changes in government we’ve seen in the past 20 years,” he said.

5. Graybeards grow fewer, newcomers scarce
There is an ongoing debate about the severity of the crisis the government faces because of the graying of its workforce. Many federal employees are nearing retirement, and the government does not have a substantial program to replace that soon-to-be lost expertise.

Although the diversity and complexity of government jobs workers have increased over the years, the expectations of fresh college graduates and what McGinnis calls go-gets — “those people in the private sector who already have the expertise government needs” — outstrip much of what government can offer.

“Our surveys show that these people value such things as the ability to innovate and be creative,” she said. “They like working in teams and with flat organizational structures, and they are willing to measure their performance. It’s a road map for what needs to change within government and what needs to be done in marketing to these types of people.”

Except for the military, she said, government has not done a good job in reaching out to them.

The growing role of contractors within the government workforce has also had a major impact, Soloway said, and it means government must compete in the open marketplace for this kind of talent.

“It’s a huge challenge, because government personnel offices are still relatively arcane when it comes to their hiring procedures,” he said. “Government has not yet cracked the code about how to compete.”

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