Why the Federal Government is Still Operating in the 20th Century
July 23, 2015
By Jonah Kitay, C’16
Why the Federal Government is Still Operating in the 20th Century
It wasn’t until recently that I truly realized attracting young talent and thus driving innovation in the Federal Government was impossible. The question is: Is that such a bad thing?
Given what we know, it appears that the public sector fails to attract young talent for two key reasons. It cannot offer competitive salaries, which even the most civic minded may spurn in the face of growing student loans and education costs; and it does not embrace innovation as an integral part of federal work culture or success. Money will always be a problem for the public sector, so I will focus on the issue of innovation in the workplace.
The Partnership for Public Service, in partnership with Booze Allen Hamilton, recognized the challenge of innovation, and sought to determine the best practices of current COOs. Many COOs referenced support and encouragement for innovation through initiatives meant to identify and implement forward thinking ideas. To start this cycle, though, we would have to begin by recognizing implemented innovations, and appreciating those who took the necessary risks to achieve it. But that is exactly where the problem lies: in risks. Innovation is impossible without risk taking, and, when speaking of strategic risks, the bigger the risk the greater the payout upon success. The key to changing the culture of a work force is to modernize the mindset of employees from one of risk-aversion to one of tactical risk-seeking. Once a workforce understands that failure is a part of moving forward, and that through failure we discover success, an innovative culture can thrive.
Only now do I realize that this cannot exist within the federal government.
Our government is not like a private firm. It cannot act like a venture capitalist. It cannot even take actions that produce little at great cost, even if the potential for greater returns is high. It cannot fail. Why is this the case? Because the public sector’s investors do not give their money with the expectation of potential losses. They do not have a tolerance for waste. The public sector’s investors are the American people, and they expect their tax dollars to be used prudently. These stakeholders do not see the value of their hard earned money being used on failed investments. When an individual pays his taxes, he expects legitimate returns: postal roads, a police force, a legislature, etc. Risks that result in failure are not seen as valuable to the public sector’s “investors,” but rather, as a misuse of their money.
When the media dramatizes this failure further to pad their own pockets, the people become enraged and the government must capitulate. The executive might have to make cabinet changes, the cabinet may have to make departmental changes, and the people may retaliate in the congressional and presidential elections. Employees of the public sector know this. They also prefer employment. So why, then, would anyone at any level of the bureaucracy ever take risks in pursuit of innovation and more rapid success? The risks are far greater than the reward could ever be. Intolerant investors destroy companies, because they keep them from remaining competitive. So too, the public sectors remains in the 20th century as a result of intolerant investors. It is far better to do what your job dictates than risk everything to produce better results.
My greatest misconception before my internship experience was thinking that the government’s inability to innovate needed to be changed and that innovation should be embraced in the public sector. While innovation is obviously valued, it should never be expected of the public sector. The federal government waits until a method is tried and proven, and then invests in it. This places it light years behind any private sector company, but maintains an appropriate use of tax dollars. It is the duty of our government to use its citizen’s money appropriately and without waste to the best of its ability. Thus, I was wrong to believe that government must drive innovation. It is not the place of the government to invest taxpayer dollars without the knowledge of a successful payout.
This is not to say that innovation does not occur in the public sector. I have seen employees produce incredible innovations first hand, and know a number of individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving innovation in the federal government to the best of their abilities. It is simply never going to be ingrained as an inherent part of the public sector’s culture, and it shouldn’t.
The federal government operates in the 20th century, because it is dedicated to its stakeholders, the American people. It does not knowingly misuse money; whether it be in the wages it pays its employees or the ways in which it invests its funds. This means that the public sector cannot achieve the two elements discussed earlier: attracting young talent and embracing innovation. Whether or not this is a good thing is another argument entirely. It is clear, however, that this is the right thing. The government exists by the people, for the people. It must, therefore, appease the people.
 Brack, Jessica. “Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace.” UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, 2012. Web. Page 4. The tech-savvy, collaborative, multi-tasking nature of millennials is necessary for companies to thrive.
 Zimmermann, Volker. “The Impact of Innovation on Employment in Small and Medium Enterprises with Different Growth Rates.” Jahrbücher Für Nationalökonomie Und Statistik / Journal of Economics and Statistics (2009): 313-26. JSTOR. Web.
 See Brack, page 10. “Step 1: Attract Them,” and “Big Demands and High Expectations: The Deloitte Millennial Survey - Executive Summary.” Deloitte, 2014. Web. Page 3.
 See Brack, page 10 regarding financial reasons and Deloitte, page 3 for innovative reasons.
 Kelly, Eric, Emily Connelly, Ronald Sanders, Ben Marglin, Zarak Khan, Marcella M. McClatchey, and Collin Walsh. Bridging Mission and Management: A Survey of Government Chief Operating Officers. Rep. Ed. Mallory B. Bulman and Bob Cohen. Washington DC: Partnership for Public Service, 2015. Print. Page 23.
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