Will the digital strategy change management patterns?

To achieve the plan's goals, federal managers will need to give up some control over employees and information.

Federal managers who expect little to change with the release of the digital government strategy could be in for a rude awakening. At its core, the blueprint aims to shake up the traditionally slow-moving federal government to better align with the fast-evolving world of technology. With that shift come new expectations that challenge managers to abandon outdated thinking, according to one expert.

“People form patterns about how to manage a workforce in a particular environment, and as that environment changes, we need to change our notion about what is good management,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service. “Digital government is one of those forcing mechanisms for change.”

To build a digital government and manage an increasingly technology-oriented workforce, managers will need to take on new roles and empower employees to be more autonomous, Palguta said.

“Managers have to be open to and encouraging of changes in the jobs of government employees who are involved in expanding the digital government,” he said. “It’s a given now that there are things some employees can do remotely in a telework situation because of technology. But there are managers who still have issues with employees not adhering to a 9-to-5, in-the-office type of schedule.”

The expanding mobile workforce also puts pressure on managers to direct, guide and coach employees, said Susan Charnaux-Grillet, an associate principal at McKinsey and Co. who focuses on talent and leadership development.

This new environment “does raise the bar for managers in leading employees through the learning curve,” she said. Managers will need to rethink how they plan their work and how they bring employees together to focus on and accomplish agency missions, said Charnaux-Grillet, who formerly worked at the White House and the Defense Department, where she identified, recruited and developed workers for senior positions.

“Managers not only have to direct work but they’re also trying to build up the skills for the future as well as [being] role models,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Learning to share

The strategy’s information- and citizen-centric approaches also require managers who have typically been knowledge hoarders to share. “We have a fair number of people in government for whom information and data were power,” Palguta said. “‘I’ve got access to all the information; if you want it, file a Freedom of Information Act request and I’ll eventually provide you with information.’”

Managers will also likely need to be aware of whether employees are actively looking for ways to make it easier for the public to find and use government data and services. Occasionally, that might mean employees must change from being a gatekeeper to being a facilitator. Specifically, it will fall on managers to ensure that agencies don’t erect unnecessary roadblocks “simply because some employees fear that if this data is too easily accessible, it makes their jobs less important as gatekeepers of information,” Palguta said.

Furthermore, "it would be a good thing to do to look for ways to recognize employees who are finding new and innovative ways to use technology, services or information and make that more accessible to the public,” he added.

Managers will have to take on an empowering role and model the behaviors they want from their employees by showing they’re willing to change processes to better align them with the new way of thinking, Palguta said. For instance, managers should show that they’re open to new operating procedures and working arrangements.

For managers who are used to being in control, letting go a little could be the most significant challenge in managing an increasingly digital workforce.

“Digital government can be somewhat threatening to some managers who are used to having all that control,” Palguta said. “In a digital government, you’re going to have to empower people and give them authority and hold them accountable. But in the end, you have to give up some control.”

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