Insights Article

The High Cost of Playing it Safe

Jesse White
May 14, 2024
May 14, 2024

Federal IT buyers are held back by a deep fear: the fear of failure. That may seem sensible at first glance—a careful approach to managing public funds and projects. But this hyper-cautious mindset has unintended consequences, especially in a time when government needs to adapt nimbly to changing technologies and evolving customer or constituent expectations.

Think about the dilemma faced by a typical Program Element Officer (PEO), the linchpin in federal acquisition projects. Whether it’s a state-of-the-art software system or a new fleet of aircraft, the success or failure of these acquisitions weighs heavily on their shoulders. A single perceived failure can spell disaster for their career, one that sees their influence dwindle and relevance fade away. The message is clear: failure is not an option, and the price to pay for it is professional ruin. This fear-driven environment breeds a culture of caution. Taking the path of least resistance becomes the norm, where doing an ‘okay’ job ensures survival—but nothing more. 

Why is it a rarity for federal executives to achieve excellence? The answer lies not in a lack of capability. Indeed, some of the most astute and capable minds are at work within the government. The hurdle is the inherent risk associated with greatness. True excellence often demands stepping out of the comfort zone, challenging established norms, and taking calculated risks—actions that are inherently discouraged in a risk-averse environment.

In such a setting, where every move is under intense scrutiny, risk-taking is often viewed with skepticism, if not outright disapproval. The inherent structure of government organizations, with their elaborate checks and balances, inadvertently ends up suppressing innovative impulses. The drive to excel and innovate is consistently overshadowed by the looming threat of failure, leading to a culture where maintaining the status quo becomes the primary objective, often at the expense of potential groundbreaking advancements.

Snuffing Out Innovation

I’m reminded of the wisdom of Bran Ferren, a leader in technology and design, who recently shed light on this predicament. Known for his groundbreaking work with Disney Imagineering and his contributions to technology (rumored to include the patent for pinch-and-zoom on the iPhone), Ferren’s outside perspective can teach us a lot. During a visit to our office, he told us what he tells leaders who are risk-averse to an extreme degree: “You will never foster innovation in your organization because you are simply structured in a way to snuff it out at the lowest level.”

Ferren’s experiences echo a broader truth: The moment an unconventional idea emerges, it faces the gauntlet of hierarchical scrutiny, often getting thrown out before it can mature into a viable project.

We see this play out in government acquisition all the time. Despite promising to deliver outcomes, a project can be derailed by any number of factors: security concerns, compliance hurdles, or simply the inertia of bureaucracy. Even solutions that meet all regulatory requirements, like being “FedRAMPed,” are not immune from getting tossed or stuck in a web of documentation and requirements, rendering them ineffectual.

Rethinking Risk

The first step towards innovation is changing the narrative around failure. Government entities can start by establishing ‘safe-fail’ projects or pilots where the focus is on experimentation and learning, rather than immediate success. Leaders should publicly recognize and reward teams that take calculated risks, even if the outcomes aren’t as expected. This recognition can come in various forms, such as internal awards for innovative attempts or highlighting these efforts in communications to reinforce the value placed on experimentation.

Another key strategy lies in borrowing successful practices from the private sector. The creation of small, agile teams that operate with a degree of autonomy can prove transformative. These teams, somewhat insulated from the usual bureaucratic constraints, should be empowered to experiment, iterate, and develop proof of concepts. This ‘incubator’ model allows for the nurturing of innovative ideas in a controlled environment, mitigating the risks associated with large-scale implementations, and providing valuable insights before broader rollouts.

The path to unlocking the full potential of federal procurement and project management is not through avoiding risks but by embracing them judiciously. A cultural shift is needed—one that values innovation and understands that true excellence is often born out of bold, calculated risks. By fostering an environment where risk is not a deterrent but a catalyst for growth, the government can not only improve its procurement processes but also set a precedent for other sectors to follow.

In the words of Bran Ferren, innovation can’t happen without the organizational courage to pursue them in the face of uncertainty. It’s time for government entities to develop this courage and venture beyond the safe harbor of mediocrity.

Insights Article

The Bureaucracy Barrier

How We’re Modernizing the Public Sector to Woo Digital Natives

Nearly 40% of federal employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and the impending ‘knowledge cliff’ has long been a well-reported concern. This uncertainty presents a dual challenge for the public sector: preparing for a potential mass exodus of experienced employees and attracting a new generation of digitally adept job seekers eager to make a difference—but disillusioned by outdated systems and convoluted workflows.

“You have this new generation coming into the workforce and there seems like a lot of bureaucracy in the federal government and things don’t make sense,” says Bahar Niakan, Managing Director of HR Modernization at Intact. “The workflows don’t make sense. The manual processes don’t make sense. There are endless PDF forms that you have to complete.”

Just trying to get basic work tools can be a frustrating slog. “Getting a computer or your security clearance done is hard. And that’s your first experience with the federal government walking in the door,” she says.

When digital native applicants encounter bureaucratic hurdles like filling out a PDF form just to receive a work laptop, they quickly lose interest in pursuing a potentially rewarding career in the public sector. Instead, they take their talents to more agile industries, often in the private sector. In order to attract and retain the upcoming generation of public servants, the government must find a way to overcome this generational divide.

“I tell employees the stories of changes I’ve gone through, how difficult it is even for me as a change agent. When we get through this process and get to the other side, your lives are going to be better, your work is going to be easier, and your customers are going to be happier.”

Modernizing systems to empower employees

Outdated legacy systems hinder both current employees and potential hires. These systems turn simple tasks into time-sucking rabbit holes.

“HR can sometimes feel like a black hole,” Niakan points out. “You send a request in, and you don’t know where it went. You don’t know how long it’s going to sit there. And when you get a response, you feel lucky. What you don’t see is how incredibly hard the HR team is working to get all of their customer needs accomplished. You don’t know it because there is no visibility into HR.”

By implementing ServiceNow, Intact streamlines workflows across all departments involved in fulfilling employee services while providing real-time visibility to the employee. “We’re able to give our employees and leaders access to information that they didn’t have before,” Niakan explains.

For example, during her tenure at the Department of Health and Human Services, Niakan’s team used ServiceNow to create a platform called HR Exchange. This process allowed different HR centers to share candidate certificates between them—a process that was previously manual and siloed. With the old method, hiring managers would receive hundreds of eligible candidates on a list, pick one to hire, and discard the other qualified resumes.

But by making all the resumes keyword searchable, hiring managers from other departments can easily comb through thousands of resumes for other candidates that matched their required qualifications.

“At one point, we had 100,000 resumes available in the database,” Niakan recalls. “I could put in the word ‘epidemiology,’ for example, and it would narrow down to 417 resumes. Then I could add ‘basketball’ and it would narrow down to 26 people.” This new level of visibility allowed managers to efficiently identify qualified candidates across silos, improving hiring outcomes.

Staff can work more efficiently and focus on high-value activities by having critical data readily available. They can automate repetitive tasks using ServiceNow, allowing experienced personnel to dedicate their time to more strategic initiatives. It’s an approach that not only helps retain valuable institutional knowledge but also accommodates the retirement of long-time employees.

The importance of transferring critical institutional knowledge to the next generation has caught the attention of oversight bodies. According to the Office of Personnel Management, failure to transfer this knowledge could compromise a federal agency’s ability to fulfill its mission.

“Agencies must modernize human resources IT infrastructure by upgrading and integrating enterprise IT systems supporting the workforce and increasing the data available to inform management decision-making,” according to the OPM’s 2022 Federal Workforce Priorities Report.

The fear of failure holding us back

Modernizing any system comes with its own set of risks. But when it comes to federal agencies that are accountable for providing essential benefits and services, any failure can have a significantly adverse impact on vulnerable populations.

“These are major systems we are talking about, like the ones that run the food stamp program I worked on at USDA. That’s a system that has to work every day,” says Jonathan Alboum, the Federal CTO at ServiceNow, who previously served as CIO for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “These systems always have to work, so you don’t have a lot of opportunity to introduce something new that’s going to fail—or that might fail.”

With so much at stake, fear of destabilization breeds deep risk aversion. Yet refusing to evolve also poses dangers. Outdated tools frustrate users and impose limitations. The key is finding a middle path.

“ServiceNow gives you a lot of ability to innovate quickly and rapidly, and, in many cases, ServiceNow is already a key technology in an agency,” Alboum says. “So you can build off of that to implement other aspects of ServiceNow, like low-code applications, very quickly to transport processes.”

By leveraging familiar systems like ServiceNow, change can unfold steadily using the right iterative approach. The process begins with small upgrades that help build trust and confidence, paving the way for more expansive modernization in the future. While transforming massive bureaucracies may require patience, the iterative progress empowers current staff and makes public service more appealing to potential hires.

ServiceNow’s connected platform enables the free flow of information across silos. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Niakan was able to provide real-time policy and safety updates to the entire HHS workforce and widespread access to Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results.

“Managers were able to look at not just their own survey results within their organization down to the work unit level, but they could also make comparisons with other organizations to see and learn what organizations might be doing better in a certain area,” she said.

You need to change people first

One reason why the pace of modernization is usually slow is that leaders recognize that effective modernization goes beyond technology. Implementing change across massive bureaucratic systems also demands the ability to competently and compassionately address their employees’ fears and resistance.

“Change is scary for a lot of people,” Niakan says. “It’s not just about putting a new system in front of them. When you say to a person, ‘You need to change the way you’re thinking,’ there’s no system in front of them to learn, with buttons to press. It’s more complex than that.”

With a thoughtful, people-focused approach, leaders can overcome resistance by building trust and helping staff understand the “why” behind digital transformations. Though progress takes patience, this mindset shift brings government into the 21st century—where public service is more streamlined, responsive, and fulfilling for users both inside and out.

“I tell employees the stories of changes I’ve gone through, how difficult it is even for me as a change agent,” she says. “When we get through this process and get to the other side, your lives are going to be better, your work is going to be easier, and your customers are going to be happier.”