Forman: Feds hungry for change

When he joined the Bush administration as its chief e-government architect last summer, Mark Forman thought one of his biggest problems would be "changing the culture of the government workforce." He had visions of endlessly prodding federal employees to embrace information technology and current management techniques.

What he discovered was a surprise.

The federal workforce is "very hungry for change," he told an international gathering of e-government officials in Seattle April 17. "It was just everywhere you look. Employees were saying, 'Give us a modern work environment.' "

That message came through in groups of government workers, via e-mail messages and "just talking to many, many employees," said Forman, who is associate director of information technology and e-government in the Office of Management and Budget.

Repeatedly, government workers told him they are anxious to work collaboratively and move into a Web-enabled work environment.

"And then you would always see this recurring barrier: 'My supervisor won't let us do this' or 'We know this is good for the government, but my supervisor can't figure out how to get it funded,' " he said.

"There is a layer of supervisors and executives that cannot change very easily," Forman said. Aging midlevel managers, he discovered, are a major impediment to e-government progress.

Fortunately, it's at least partially a self-solving problem.

During the next five years, half of all federal government workers will become eligible to retire. And many who depart will be the obstructing managers, Forman said in an address.

The people Forman hopes to attract to government jobs "are being taught in school and college how to do team-based problem-solving and things like that," he said. "That's exactly what we want to improve the quality of service and accelerate response times in the way that government operates."

But will those potential workers be willing to leave the "Web-enabled environment" of school and the private sector to work in government?

"Government is still living in a paper world — the way we think, the way we manage," Forman said. That makes it difficult to attract workers accustomed to an electronic workplace.

A second surprise, Forman said, is that the public is more eager for e-government than he expected. In the past year, 42 million people have used e-government to learn about government policies, he said, and 23 million "have used it actually to comment on policies and regulations." Forman said he did not expect that much interest in "participatory democracy."

OMB's office of regulatory affairs is working on ways to involve citizens in rulemaking by taking advantage of Web technology at the front end and knowledge management tools at the back end, Forman said.

Citizens already have Web access to read and comment on agencies' proposed rulemakings. But what does an agency do with 50,000 or 100,000 comments? Forman asked. "How do you turn that data into information that can be used to improve" rules and agency enforcement of them?

"Knowledge management," Forman said.

Several agencies have undertaken projects to use knowledge management to automatically analyze comments on rules so that agencies can incorporate public comments into rulemaking and enforcement, he said.

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