Gov Trek

Excerpted from Four Scenarios for the Future of the Federal Government: Collected Essays on Transforming Government (2019)

In my online University of Louisville class on communication technology, we discuss the history of communication technology from the days of cave paintings to the latest in virtual and augmented reality. As the coda to the course, we examine four possible future worlds created by the new digital technologies.

The first two worlds come classic dystopian literature. Either the new digital technologies create a 1984-style future of constant surveillance in an authoritarian state, or we amuse ourselves to death in a Brave New World future. Some students remarked that we have seemed to have achieved a Brave New 1984 world where our constant surveillance technologies can also amuse us as the AIs observe us (“Alexa, can cats eat pancakes?”).

The third world is influenced by my first viewing of Terminator. As our digital technologies become smarter, will there be a time when the machines replace us? Maybe not to the extent that the AI superintelligences will attempt to exterminate humanity. However, there are real concerns in the public and private sectors of how many people will lose jobs to the increasing automation of work. The students have a great time discussing a post-work world but, I can sense the underlying fear they have in wondering if their college education will be worth anything in the post-work world.

The fourth world is the optimistic future created by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Star Trek has been a significant influence on my life having grown up in the 70s with constant reruns of the original series. In the Star Trek world, humanity has adapted to a post-scarcity world abundant with amazing technologies such as antigravity, transporters, replicators, and warp drive. Public administration, in the form of the Federation, is an honored and valuable part of life as the Federation’s citizens face numerous threats from the Borg to Romulans to the occasional renegade Starfleet officer.

I think you can see hints of the four worlds in my essays. Whether it is the concern around social technologies and how social technologies have seemed to create the Brave New 1984. Or how federal government workers can thrive in the new workplace automation world. I also see how the federal government along with the state and local governments seem to move toward the GovTrek world.

Woman looking at a glass sphere

So, where do I see the federal, state, and local governments in terms of the original four scenarios? Again, there is a mix but, I feel optimistic in that all governments seem to be moving toward InnoGov in terms of Philip K. Dick’s observation that the future has arrived. It’s just that InnoGov is not equally distributed – yet.

Still there are parts of government stuck in SteamGov such as the short time I worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the manager of the Human Resources Information Management Branch, I struggled weekly to pull HR reports from a Cobol mainframe that contained the payroll and personnel information for a quarter of the federal civilian workforce.

Then, there is GoogleGov which should be renamed “PublicPrivateGov” as public-private partnership proliferated in the last decade. As more public agencies move to the cloud, companies like Google and Amazon have benefited from hosting the agency functions of federal, state, and local governments. In the state and local government sector, numerous govtech companies have sprung up while the open source revolution has become an essential part of the federal government.

LabGov is alive and well in the state and local governments. Each issue of Governing, Government Technology and related magazines on state and local government showcases the latest state and local technology and policy innovations. There are many lessons that state and local governments can teach the federal government on how to best use digital technologies.

Finally, there are pockets of InnoGov in the federal government. For several years, I chronicled the latest innovations in my DigitalGov Data Briefing column. As I have expressed in the essays, it is more a cultural barrier than a technology barrier holding InnoGov back.

I think that the federal, state, and local governments are on the path to Gov Trek. As any Star Trek fan will tell you, the road to the Federation was difficult. There were many stops and starts, detours and dead ends, and opposition both internal and external to realizing the vision and ideals of the Federation. I hope that my essays chronical some part of the journey for the federal, state, and local governments in this new century.

Working on A New Course Design Model

I started teaching in late August of 2000. In those 19 years, I have studied many models of course design and teaching. A week ago, I took a day off to put together a visual of what I have learned and used. Look for new posts that will explain the mental model that I created.

Here’s a preview of the model that I created:

Visual of new teaching model

Citizen 2.0 or Client 2.0: The Street-Level Bureaucrat and Engagement 2.0

I started my government career as a street-level bureaucrat. In the summer of 1990, I was a paralegal intern for the Richmond, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The Department of Public Advocacy was a public defender’s office that covered four counties. My job was to interview the clients arrested and jailed. I would spend the morning in the jail interviewing clients and the afternoons writing up reports and doing legal research. Even for a small college town we were busy. The average caseload for our attorneys was between 200 to 250 cases a year. This experience led to my lifelong interest in street-level bureaucracies (SLB).

What makes an SLB different from other government agencies is that SLBs have immediate and direct contact with the public while most employees in other agencies deal almost exclusively with other government employees. SLBs are where policy is realized and implemented. The bulk of government employment is street-level bureaucrats such as police officers, teachers, social workers, and so on. As Michael Lipsky observed these government employees are charged with implementing and administering an ever-increasing set of policies and laws to an ever-growing population while facing shrinking budgets and resources. It may not be as bad as being consigned to Hades and tasked with eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, but there are days that it is close.

Street-level bureaucrats (SLB) have devised several methods to cope with their job as Jeffrey Prottas details in his book PeopleProcessing. The SLB picks the rules they will follow because to follow every rule that comes down would immobilize the agency. The SLB trains the citizens it meets into becoming good clients who make life easier for the SLB by being compliant and not making extra work. The most significant advantage that the SLB has is their superior knowledge of the rules and processes through which the SLB can punish or reward clients by withholding or supplying information. Even though the SLB must exercise as little discretion as possible in fulfilling the agency’s objectives, they carve out a good deal of autonomy.

The studies that established the characteristics of the street-level bureaucrats (SLB) and their practices were done in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. You will see an occasional paper on SLBs but nothing yet as to the impact of social networking technologies and how they affect the work and practices of the SLB. Social networking has a profound effect on SLBs because it will destroy the information advantage SLBs have while better performance measurement tools will reduce the autonomy of SLBs.

Customer at a counter.

Let’s discuss performance management tools first. When dashboard cameras were installed in police cars the police officer’s actions in the field were now more easily observed and monitored by their managers back at the station. Dashboard cameras were first resisted by police officers, but then they realized this was objective proof of why they had to deal with someone the way they did, and now most police officers welcome the scrutiny. Another related technology, GPS “tattlers” that record the routes taken by public service workers is not so well accepted but has helped cut down on abuse by some workers.

But where the most profound impact of social networking technologies is in erasing the information advantage the street-level bureaucrat has over clients. Just think of how car buying, medicine, law, and so many other areas have been influenced when consumers can go to a website and research the history of a car, the symptoms of a disease, or create their own will with freely-available information and the advice of a community with similar experiences. There is a substantial market out there for the person who writes a Dummies guide to the local welfare office or releases an app to help a citizen negotiate the process of applying for aid. I remember how empowered I felt when I first gained online access to my bank account and could see the same information the bank clerk saw as we spoke on the phone. The SLBs will lose a great deal of discretion when faced with a group of empowered clients who know the process and their rights even better than the SLB.

But these same social networking technologies can benefit the SLB. A large part of the work is screening the client, which could be done through an automated process, thus freeing the SLB to deal with the exceptional cases (you can see this already in some jurisdictions). Another benefit is for SLBs to form online communities where they can receive guidance from their peers at their desks and while working with clients. The performance management tools will provide an objective view of the burdens SLBs work under and may discourage management from stopping producing so many rules and erasing existing rules. We will not know the full impact of social technologies on the street-level bureaucracies for several years as the innovations diffuse through the agencies, but I am hopeful the effect will create a better future for both Client 2.0 and SLB 2.0.

References:

  • Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Prottas, J.M. (1979). People-processing: The street-level bureaucrat in public service bureaucracies. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Defining Collaborgagement

I coined the term collaborgagement while attending a conference on content strategy. At this conference, John Newton (Alfresco’s CTO) commented that the next generation of enterprise IT tools needs to serve the middle of the enterprise – the domain of the knowledge workers. These tools need to support collaboration, knowledge management, and just-in-time sharing of expertise. Even so, collaboration/knowledge management software doesn’t automatically empower knowledge workers. There must be more than just new tools.

Collaboration is important but it is not enough. What is needed is something that would continue the benefits of collaboration between the collaboration sessions. A way of engaging the person’s thoughts and focusing those thoughts on the collaboration work even when the person is working alone. A process I call collaborgagement. Not just a combination of collaboration and engagement but a synergistic process.

The foundation of collaborgagement is the mental model. The mental model has been variously defined by different fields, but the consensus seems that mental models are “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (Wind and Crook, 2005). Individuals have mental models, but so do teams and departments. The purpose of the mental model is to make sense of various aspects of our lives including our work. Mental models take a great deal of effort to build, but the benefit is that once created, they reduce our thinking load.

For example, researchers have found that expert chess players think less than novice chess players because the expert chess player can focus on several pieces at once and perceive patterns of board arrangements. The novice chess player has to concentrate on separate pieces and build the pattern from the individual pieces. The expert chess player has a library of mental models they can consult that makes them better players because they can “lookup” the answer to a chess problem while a novice is still calculating the problem.

The same process can be seen in everyday life. Think of how you learned to drive. Remember all the steps you had to master to start the car, put it in drive, and begin your journey. Repetition and observation helped you build a mental model so that driving almost becomes an automatic process requiring little conscious thinking.

The challenge is that we rely on our mental models so much we strenuously resist changing or discarding our existing models. This goes for team mental models and individual mental models. But our changing world requires that we change our mental models, or they quickly lose their benefit and can even harm us in the new realities we face. We need a process of engaging people’s attention at the level of their mental models and then collaborate to help explore current mental models and modify or even replace these mental models on an individual and team level. This is the purpose of collaborgagement.

There are probably several methods for examining current mental models and altering them, but I like the process Wind and Crook (2005) outline in their book The Power of Impossible Thinking:

  • Understand the power and limits of mental models.
  • Test the relevance of your mental models against the changing environment, generate new models, and develop an integrated portfolio of models.
  • Overcome inhibitors to change by reshaping infrastructure and the thinking of others.
  • Transform your world by acting quickly upon the new models, continuously experimenting, and applying a process for assessing and strengthening your models. (p. xxiv)
Two people collaborating at a white board.

With Wind and Crook’s (2005) process in mind, this is how collaborgagement would work:

  • Before a team meeting, the individual members examine their existing mental models that relate to the topic of the meeting. The team member may want to blog, mind map, or similar tool to help him or her to surface the mental models and produce it in a tangible form.
  • During the team meeting, the individual members display their mental models. Then the team works together to surface the team mental models in a tangible form.
  • The team then examines the new reality of the topic and lists the characteristics. The goal of this phase is to come to a consensus about the new reality.
  • After a consensus has been reached, the team compares the current team mental model to the new reality. Does the team mental model need revising, or is an entirely new team mental model required? The team works to determine the revisions or constructs the new mental model.
  • After the team meeting, the individual members go on their own to reflect on the consensus about the new reality and how their current mental models compare to the new reality. The member then revises their existing mental models or constructs new mental models that reflect both the new reality and the team mental model.
  • What is significant about this process is that it engages people on a deeper level than what usually happens in change efforts. I have been to plenty of meetings where great ideas and energy has been generated, but it quickly dissipates once the meeting is over. For profound and sustainable change to happen, you must engage people at a fundamental level and produce collaboration that carries on ever after the meeting is over. Starting at the mental model level is the best way to create lasting transformative change.

Reference:

Wind, Y., & Crook, C. (2005). The power of impossible thinking: Transform the business of your life and the life of your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.