Embracing the unfamiliar

The push to get President Bush's 24 e-government initiatives under way has added several buzzwords to the federal management lingo. Government is undergoing a "transformation," it's often said, and aiding that process means putting more information technology into the hands of change agents.

But what does that really mean? Who are the change agents in the federal workforce, and what exactly do they do? Do they only exist at the managerial level, or could they be sitting in a small cubicle down the hall? And how do you spot them?

Change agents — workers who can embrace the unfamiliar technological demands of e-government and use it to their and their agencies' advantage — come in all shapes and sizes, several chief information officers and high-ranking IT administrators say.

Change agents are creative, innovative and even a little wacky. And they are everywhere.

At the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Emory Fry, a neonatologist, and Lt. Cmdr. Mary LaCroix, the center's CIO, had grown increasingly frustrated by the difficulty patients had in scheduling follow-up appointments. So the pair developed a Web-based application that enabled patients to schedule appointments via the Internet and wireless technologies.

The Navy Department E-business Operations Office provided $100,000 to fund a pilot program of the application, which proved so successful that the deputy surgeons general of the Army, Navy and Air Force decided in late February to expand the program throughout the Defense Department, said Dave Wennergren, deputy CIO for e-business and security at DOD.

"You can be a change leader at any level of the organization. That's what makes e-government work," Wennergren said. "Whether you're the secretary of the Navy or a sailor on a ship, you have the opportunity to effect change."

Change agents are often able to step back from their routines and see how familiar processes look in a new light, said Rick Otis, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Environmental Information at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Otis tried recently to explain Bush's e-government initiatives to a group of Senior Executive Service managers. The executives listened quietly to his description of the technical elements of the President's Management Agenda and the e-government projects. Then one spoke up. "I understand that these things are important because they're presidential initiatives, and I hear this word transformation being used a lot," the executive said. "But other than that, I still don't get why e-government is important to me."

Stumped by the question, Otis thought for a moment. "Then I decided to explain it again, but this time in their own words, in the language of policy and regulatory decision-makers," Otis said. "I told them exactly, point by point, how it would change the business processes they were normally involved in. I saw the light dawn in their eyes. Finally, one said, 'Now that's a great idea. We've been trying to do things like that for 20 years!'"

The point, Otis said, is that change agents are people with the ability to see an issue from multiple perspectives and express those perspectives in various ways. "The lesson is IT-speak is different than regulatory-speak," he said. A change agent "needs to have an understanding of both."

But the ranks of federal managers aren't the only fertile ground for change agents. The key to government transformation "is finding people at the lower levels in your organization who are change agents," said Brig. Gen. Trudy Clark, CIO of the Air Force, at the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils' (FGIPC) recent Management of Change conference in New Orleans.

"In the military, it's often the senior civilian employees who are most likely to fit this role. You look for the person [who] when something new comes along everybody turns to and says, 'What do you think about this?'" Clark said. "That's your make-or-break point. If they say, 'It's the greatest thing since sliced bread,' you're on your way."

Sometimes, however, the top manager in the agency must act as the primary change agent because interpersonal relationships forged in the past get in the way of the cultural transformation that e-government requires, said Ron Miller, CIO of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at the FGIPC conference.

Miller, who joined FEMA in the fall of 2001, said that despite the intense pressure to introduce innovative IT-based processes in his agency because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some employees and managers are reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace e-government because their previous experiences with it have been unsatisfactory.

"The biggest challenge I find is not resistance to change but to past history," Miller said. "People tell me, 'I trust you, but I don't trust your staff.'"

Because of this wariness, Miller said he sometimes has to spend extra time introducing new procedures and making himself available to answer questions instead of handing those duties to a subordinate.

"It can make for some long days," he said.

That's why change agents also tend to be those who know they need to enlist the sponsorship of people higher in the chain of command who understand why new processes are necessary — and are willing to throw their weight behind them, Otis said.

"I told one of our employees that I thought the project he was working on was extremely important to EPA's future and that I would do everything I could to remove any roadblocks to the project and get him in to see and talk to people across the country," Otis said. "That's what we're trying to do for several of our e-government projects here."

Not all change agents will ask for that kind of sponsorship of their own accord, however. "You have to seek these people out and ask their advice," Clark said. "You have to cultivate them and make new things seem like their idea, not yours."

***

How to spot a change agent

Change agents — workers who can embrace the unfamiliar technological demands of e-government and use them to their advantage — can be found at every level of the federal workplace.

Rick Otis, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Environmental Information at the Environmental Protection Agency, has studied change agents and found that they share certain characteristics, including:

* Creativity. Change agents look at technologies in new and different ways. "They see things other people don't see, and then they figure out how to make it real for others," Otis said.

* The ability to understand processes from several perspectives. Many employees are so involved in their day-to-day routines that they can't step back and look at issues from different angles, Otis said. Change agents, however, "often are able to think in the same mind-set of all the various actors involved in the process."

* The ability to translate for others. Along with the ability to see different perspectives, change agents are able to "speak the language of their colleagues, in a practical sense, so they get it."

* Understanding the need to enlist the support of a sponsor. Change agents "know how to manipulate the system around them to their end. They recognize who it is they need to get involved in the changing process."

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