At once, a dearth of public sector tech talent and innovation inertia

By Anthony Brino
03:01 PM

The public sector is facing an IT workforce crisis: attracting too few technologists, tasking those that are found with managing outdated systems and failing to nurture the type of culture that could foster innovation.

In many ways, argues a report commissioned by the Ford and MacArthur foundations, the Department of Health and Human Service’s botched rollout of illustrates the problems on a grand scale and it “incited a highly visible debate about how the government develops and acquires technology and whether adequate expertise exists within government to pursue such large-scale technology systems,” according to a report by Freedman Consulting.

Despite recent signs of progress, such as federal, state and city governments creating CTO and equivalent positions, “deep questions remain about the ability for many areas of government and civil society to identify, cultivate, and retain individuals with the necessary skills for success in a world increasingly driven by information technology,” the report concluded.

Freedman Consulting staff interviewed almost 50 current and former policy makers, scholars and advocates at organizations like Code for America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Microsoft Research, and found a shared concern about innovation in public sector IT, the current talent pipeline flowing to public IT departments and the long-term implications of the shortcomings.

More than a few of interviewees argued that it could take 20 to 30 years to fix the deficiencies — a slow pace given the problems in healthcare, education and transportation, among other areas, that local, state and federal governments are themselves trying to fix.

[Also: When CTO Bryan Sivak showed up at HHS he met a 13-year old operating system.]

For one, the current talent pipeline is “insufficient,” many argued. Almost all of the policy makers and technology advocates and leaders interviewed agreed that there is “a severe paucity of individuals with technical skills in computer science, data science, and the Internet or other information technology expertise in civil society and government,” as the report described it.

A number of barriers contribute to that insufficiency, the interviewees said, by making the public sector unattractive compared to the private sector — among them lower compensation, “an inability to pursue groundbreaking work,” and organizational cultures “averse to hiring and utilizing potentially disruptive innovators.”

Especially for young technology workers, the interviewees said, the private sector is perceived as offering both better pay and a culture based on “innovation, openness and creativity.”

As for opening the cultures of governments and civil society and improving the public sector’s use of technology, those surveyed by Freedman have several different takes.

“The first thing government needs is a service delivery execution strategy,” one former policy maker said. “It needs to be able to think about how to do what it traditionally does with a smarter technology strategy.”

Another former policy maker warned: “If the public sector can’t be as smart and agile with new technologies, it will really atrophy.”

Meanwhile, there are at once too few individuals with the right skill sets and mismatches of skills and government needs.

In municipal government and in federal agencies, one former policy maker said, “there are a lot of people in government already who are just being underutilized.” A nonprofit leader echoed that point. “More often than not, government and the public sector isn’t set up to take advantage of their skills.”

In some places, the mismatch is perhaps a function of the government agencies relying on technology that’s outdated or at least perceived as such. The experts interviewed cited a prevailing use of traditional IT infrastructure, as opposed to the cloud-based software-as-a-service technologies that young IT workers grew up with and that even middle-aged workers now view as a norm.

“Historically, technical knowledge in government has been shunted into IT support and procurement,” one policy maker said. “By the time you get to state, city, county government,” said another policy maker, the leaders are “disproportionately” older. “Because they’re the prevailing group, they set the tone for sophistication, technology adoption, these kinds of things. It’s a challenge for us to make room for a generation of professionals who think differently, work differently.”

At the same time, the policy makers and advocates said some criticism is due for the workers themselves — that perhaps their own approaches and misunderstanding of public processes and institutions contribute to innovation inertia.

“There’s something about the personalities of people who are attracted to technology that make them not so good on policy,” one academic said. “Some of the technologists I know are a little fast and loose, and I don’t think they always know the value of procedure.”

Regardless of how the blame is divided up, the status quo is unacceptable in these modern times, when information technology is being used outside government to build social movements, raise money, share information, and provide services and when the very governments lagging in IT are also regulating the use of technology in varying extents across different sectors of the economy.

It would behoove government agencies to start reforming their technology policies now — as the federal government has been trying to with the cloud-first initiative — as sort of long-term investments to both attract more talent and procure more modern systems

“I really believe it will not solve itself,” as one technology advocate said. “I think you have to actively create the vehicles for this fertilization to happen.”

“The longer and longer we wait, the longer and longer we’re going to have to wait — exponentially — for better results,” another nonprofit leader said.

Freedman Consulting's report was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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