The Internet is Changing How the Government Works, Slowly But Surely

I work for the Government (big G) and but even leaders within my agency who disdain technology and for whom the internet instills fear realize that the best ideas are not confined to a 9-to-5 work schedule. I was surprised at how far behind my agency was in terms of technology when I joined almost 20 years ago and it has remained behind the times ever since. However, I think one of the greatest benefits that employees and especially leaders in my agency have gained in terms of connectivity is that technology makes it easier to do something that leaders should be doing anyway—asking for help. As provided by David Weinberger (2011) in chapter 6 of Too Big to Know and explained by Jon Husband on his Wirearchy website, the change from paper, books, and other mediums to digital means as a way to share information allows for instantaneous feedback with readers and in my workplace, even though we may not be using Office 365 (more like Office 2000), we still are able to connect and interact at a level that was impossible to conceive even 25 years ago. While it is true the Government is more risk averse than the private sector, we are still innovating though at a much slower pace. In the private sector, you innovate or no longer exist but leaders are extremely accountable for results. In Government, it often takes longer and it can be more difficult to measure results but mistakes in my line of work can become huge problems so people triple check everything. However, it is still important to seek alternative solutions rather than shooting down ideas. Empowerment is critical since it unleashes creativity not only in the same sense as Gartner’s (2014) Six Steps to Build a Successful Digital Business but even in organizations with weak or heavily regulated links to the internet like mine. The idea or product might not be perfect but should be rewarded and it is important for agencies such as mine to stay connected to the private sector since it is easy to live in a bubble. We need to pay attention to the private sector and bring their lexicon into the public sector such as the predictions provided by Gartner (2010) for the workplace of the future so that ideas such as work swarms, the de-routinization of work, and hyperconnections can at least be explored. It is important for leaders to listen to different groups of people, not just in the Government but also in academia, science, business, and non-government organizations. Smart leaders know to empower networks of people to spark dialogue – that is the beauty of the panoply of connectivity that exists whether our organization is on the cutting edge of technology or woefully behind.

I realize that some people see agencies such as mine as exotic, not necessarily relevant to their lives but our challenge is to engage and show the public that what we do is relevant. It is important that the services we provide to our citizens and other customers be user friendly and that comes from the tech sector. We are here to serve the public, not vice versa but certain security measures are necessary, of course. One of the ways we are seeking to become more user friendly is by untethering our workforce so that our employees are not bound to their desks and have more flexibility in their work and can potentially have a better work-life balance. But there are issues that need to be addressed and one of these is as shared by David Weinberger (2014) in his talk about the Power of the Internet concerning the anticipation of leaders about what the internet will allow untethered employees to accomplish. Another issue is the expectation by many managers that an untethered diplomat is constantly available to work, creating overtime and work-life balance issues. Some situations and activities require after-hours availability but supervisors should realize that other situations may not require an instant response from their staff and should strive to create an environment that encourages work-life balance. To me, the promise of untethered employees circles back to Jon Husband’s article explaining the Wirearchy and how knowledge, trust, and credibility between the employee and leader encourages dialogue, strategic conversations, and responsiveness not only between the two but also between the organization and our customers. Ben Hammer

References:

Gartner. (2010, August 4). Gartner says the world of work will witness 10 changes during the next 10 years. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/1416513

Gartner. (2014, May 21). Gartner identifies six key steps to build a successful digital business. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2745517

Husband, J. (n.d.).  What Is wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2014, October 22). David Weinberger on the power of the internet. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/iPXmEh24KXA

14 thoughts on “The Internet is Changing How the Government Works, Slowly But Surely”

  1. Ben:
    Many good and well articulated thoughts in your post. Working in higher education I recognized many of the same challenges (being behind and change coming slowly) you note in your position with the government. Overall, I would place higher education somewhere in between your environment and the private sector/corporate environment, but we are not very much different than you. Your comments on how technology is impacting the work-life balance and the expectations people have for immediacy certainly resonated with me. I would add the ease of electronic communications has greatly increased the quantity of communications we experience. Instructors in higher education often comment on students contacting them 24×7 through email, text, learning management systems, etc., and expecting immediate responses. It is a challenge and it often has implications for student success, retention, and persistence. But it also has implications for the work-life balance of educators. You note how knowledge, trust, and credibility can play a role in these situations in the work place. I am not certain what would be most helpful in the student/faculty dynamic. Thanks again for your insights.
    Randy Roberts

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    1. Ben,

      I enjoyed reading your post. Like you, I do work in the government sector. Like you, I have realized how behind my organization is with technology. Looking from the outside, one may say it should be easy for government agencies to get on board with technological advancement. Sure, it may be easy for my organization to launch new protocols or install Web 2.0 software on everyone’s desktop with the intention of employees using the software. However, it’s the embedded long-standing culture within the agency that creates a barrier to new or emerging technologies. My organization still follows a hierarchy structure. In some departments, knowledge is strictly managed. Hence, there aren’t many championing ideas on innovations in the organization. As leaders in the government do you think there is anything that can be done to help our organization’s culture shift from a hierarchy structure to Wierarchy’s champion-and-channel? As leaders how can we help create a culture within our organization that embraces a changing technological era?

      ~Marsha

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      1. Hi Marsha,

        We suffer from the same hierarchical issues at my agency and even though most of us are frustrated at the pace of change in the way our senior leaders approach and apply evolving technologies, it is probably more frustrating to witness people who, once they are promoted to more senior positions, take on the attitudes and resistance of the entrenched bureaucracy rather than the promise they once exhibited. I think the way to overcome this resistance to technology is to adopt Gartner’s (2014) first two steps of (1) create the right mindset and shared understanding and (2) put the right leaders in place as suggested in their article “Six Key Steps to Build a Successful Digital Business.” I would put more of an emphasis on putting the right leaders in place since it is always amazing how quick my agency will adopt a new (well, new 10 years ago) technology when a senior leader decides the technology is needed. It is up to other leaders such as ourselves to keep the pressure on our senior leaders in regards to creating a champion and channel culture and be ready to launch and support initiatives when the opportunities arise. Ben Hammer

        References:

        Gartner. (2010, August 4). Gartner says the world of work will witness 10 changes during the next 10 years. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/1416513

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Randy,

      Thanks for the feedback. I for one do not expect immediate responses back from my instructors on the rare occasion I do message them and I expect the same treatment in return (that’s a joke  ) I agree that the advances in technology have also increased the volume of communications and not all of these communications have value, as we know. I complain at work that I spend my first hour in the office just sifting through messages in my in-box that came in during the time I was away from my desk since the previous day even though I carry around a mobile device hooked to my work accounts. In this context, I would support someone else acting as a filter for me but that goes against Weinberger’s (2011) premise that the immersive nature of the internet allows everyone to act as their own filter in order to have instantaneous access to information. I believe knowledge, trust, and credibility play central roles in the relationship between supervisor and employee. The supervisor must have trust in the employee to make the right decision whether on duty or not, that the employee will seek out knowledge in attempts to answer their own questions, and credible in terms that the employee is reliable and believable in applying their own solutions to problems. Like Husband (n.d.), I believe these elements can serve as a strengthener of human-to-human connections and by extension, should improve the work-life balance since employees are provided more autonomy to act on their own and work independently. Ben Hammer

      References:

      Husband, J. (n.d.). What Is wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

      Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

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    3. Randy and Ben,
      I have really enjoyed both of your posts and thoughts. I too am in higher education and finding balance can be tough when we are always connected. As a manager and leader of an office I have had to set expectations for my team and have encouraged them to do the same with the students they work with, so they aren’t getting texted by students at 2am. The internet and social media have also created an interesting dilemma recently for my institution’s employees. Many of our younger professionals are very open on social media outlets and are “friends” with faculty, staff, and students at the institution. The leadership team within my division has spent a lot of time recently discussing what is appropriate and what can we ask employees to monitor on their accounts to ensure that we are creating supportive environments at work for all students we work with. As you can imagine this conversation with staff has been interesting since our younger employees really have not lived without a social media presence and they like the ability to express themselves this way. The internet has been very beneficial in so many ways making communication easier, however, we are constantly finding new ways to communicate with each other which causes new discussions on what is professional and what isn’t.

      Great posts this week!
      Katie

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      1. Katie (and Randy and Ben),

        This is a great conversation! It’s an interesting time to be working in higher ed, as the age range (and level of comfort with tech) is all over the board. Your mention of social media and how instructors are “friends” with students and other faculty is interesting. My institution does not have a policy about this, but do yours? Where do we draw the line between student and faculty interaction – or should we leave that up to individual instructors? Where does that fit with being transparent? It’s an interesting question….I’d be curious about your thoughts.

        Andrea

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  2. Katie, Andrea and Ben:
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Our campus has a social media policy, but it is mostly directed toward appropriate communications by employees on institutional time and resources. I hear individual faculty members discuss appropriate boundaries between student and faculty communications, but I do not know of a detailed policy or guideline.
    In recent months, facing enrollment and retention challenges at our institution, the conversation on our campus sometimes turns toward the timely communication of faculty with our students. Letting students know grades or sending feedback on assignments regularly and quickly. There is no universal policy being discussed, but the ease with which technology allows faculty to reach students, is creating some work and life balance issues for faculty. Wonder if this is being discussed on your campuses?
    Randy Roberts

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    1. Hello Randy, Katie, and Andrea,

      Thanks for the questions and insight. While I do not work in the field of higher education, I can provide some information about how my agency deals with employees and their use of social media. Since we are a Government agency and as you can imagine, we have many rules about employees using social media in their official capacity and if an employee wants to use social media and identifies themselves as an agency employee then any and all postings/contributions must be approved in advance. There is some flexibility in this policy though: an employee is required to submit the desired posting for official approval and the approving office (one stop shopping) has 48 hours to approve or deny requests for such platforms as Facebook and blogs and 24 hours to approve postings to faster moving platforms such as Twitter or news feeds. If the approving office, which operates 24/7 does not respond either way within 48 or 24 hours respectively then the employee can proceed. No response connotes approval. As far as employees making contributions to social media in an unofficial capacity, the rules are pretty easy to digest since they fall into ‘don’t embarrass the agency and/or yourself category’ even though we have had plenty of employees doing just that. I think that my agency is making the tentative steps to what Gartner (2014) refers to as building a successful digital business since the rules above are a major revision to what existed before. Wish us luck on our digital journey. Ben Hammer

      Reference:

      Gartner. (2014, May 21). Gartner identifies six key steps to build a successful digital business. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2745517

      Like

  3. Ben,
    You make excellent points regarding the workplace in government changing to be more virtual. I can see that there are some real challenges that your organization can face regarding work-life balance and security if you move workplaces to a virtual work environment (Husband, n.d.). Since you mentioned that it has taken your organization a while to expand its use of technology, maybe you do not have to rush to virtual work environments, but rather just further expand the use of technology. If your organization created a digital business leadership position to address technology strategies, you could solve some of the issues related to technology and simply make technology and innovation part of the fabric of your organization. Do you think a position like digital strategist, digital marketing leader, or digital business unit leader as described by Gartner (2014) could be helpful for your organization?
    Adrienne
    Gartner. (2014, May 21). Gartner identifies six key steps to build a successful digital business. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2745517

    Husband, J. (n.d.). What Is wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

    Like

    1. Hi Adrienne,

      Just as Gartner (2014) points out in the article, our IT professionals have been bearing the brunt of dragging my agency into the digital age with the CIO also serving as our digital strategist. While our IT folks have been doing a great job in planting the digital seeds, I do see worth in creating digital strategist, digital marketing leader, or digital business unit leader positions not only at the senior level but also scattered liberally throughout our organization chart. I think that is the only way we can take the next leap along with having senior leaders who believe in and have their own desire to build a successful digital enterprise. Ben Hammer

      Reference:

      Gartner. (2014, May 21). Gartner identifies six key steps to build a successful digital business. Retrieved from http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2745517

      Like

  4. Hi Edeltech – I discovered the below message in my e-mail. Ben

    Hammer,

    Thanks for your reflective post. Work life balance is one of the weaknesses I have identified with the current world of Internet and social media. We keep informed, we keep learning but also we keep working. Gone are the days when we leave our work in the office and come home to a restful family life. That has its negative impact. You pointed out that your organization has been slow in adopting the advances in technology and the Internet. My perception of Government institutions is that they are quite hierarchical. Do you think this is one of the reasons why they may have been slow in adopting the Internet since the Net has a subversive influence on hierarchical structures as Husband tried to explain? Edeltech

    References

    Husband, J. (n.d.). What is wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

    Like

    1. Hi Edeltech,

      I believe the existence of hierarchies is part of the reason why my agency has been slow to catch the technology train. This is due to people holding and controlling information especially at the senior and mid-level manager positions since as we know, information is power. Instead of having adult-to-adult connections in my organization, to use the example provided by Husband (n.d.), we rely too much on boss-to-underling connections to share information instead of collaborating with the assistance of technology. As you point out, access to the internet subverts this boss/underling relationship by empowering the employee since most of the supervisors have still not figured out the helpful power of the internet and positives that can be achieved by assuming champion-and-channel attitudes rather than command-and-control. Ben Hammer

      Reference:

      Husband, J. (n.d.). What is wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

      Like

  5. Ben,
    Thank you for your post this week. I found it very interesting to read your perspective about government and the adaptation of technology or how you see the government using technology. In some ways my line of work is similar to yours in that the internet allows people to ask for help quicker and more easily. In this digital age though, I often find that may of my colleague still prefer to print materials out for meetings instead of bringing an iPad or computer to a meeting to take notes. Its been interesting watching the more seasoned professionals interact with the younger professions at my institution. Do you see that within your line of work?

    Thanks,
    Katie

    Like

    1. Hi Katie,

      ‘Interesting’ is the polite word to describe the interaction of more experienced (usually older) employees and younger professionals in my organization. Frustration and resistance are probably more accurate descriptors for what I and many of my team members experience daily when we interface with employees who refuse to adopt or in some cases, even use technology. For many of our ‘old school’ employees, the only time they adopt new technology is when the IT department makes them update their computers or mobile devices. Some of these recalcitrant ‘old timers’ spend more time and energy in trying to find ways to avoid technology like printing out meeting materials than taking the time to learn and embrace modern office tools. Ben Hammer

      Like

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