Old Dog, New Tricks

The Urgent Need for Better not Bigger or Smaller Government

For too many Americans, their quality of life is either stagnant or declining. As a result, voters typically see their government as a “chronically clumsy, ineffectual, bloated giant,” writes Peter Schuck in Why Government Fails So Often. The United States has dropped in The Economist’s Democracy Index to 25th, mostly as a result of its poor rankings in the “functioning of government” category. The ultra-wealthy rationalize how little in federal income taxes they pay by arguing that they can spend their money better. However lamentable, this excuse resonates with many politicians on both sides of the aisle, and all too many Americans.

Outmoded Skills, Outdated Policy

The White House has declared: “Advances in technology and increased skills needs are changing the workplace at an ever-increasing rate. These advances can make Federal employees more productive and provide improved service to our customers, the American taxpayers. We need to ensure that we continue to train Federal employees to take full advantage of these technological advances and to acquire the skills and learning needed to succeed in a changing workplace.” However relevant these words may sound today, they were written almost 23 years ago, which was the last time the White House meaningfully addressed training.

Creating a Twenty-First Century State: Next Steps for the Biden Administration

To upskill public sector workers in tomorrow’s data, digital, and problem-solving tools, the federal government can build on lessons learned from organizations that are successfully making the transition to a more modern workforce. Here are five key steps the Biden Administration should take to upskill the public workforce. Taken together, these five steps could lead to a radical improvement in the effectiveness of government and the ability of the Administration to upgrade its management agenda by ensuring that public officials — both career and political — are in the best position possible to execute on its ambitious goals.

  1. Include questions about innovation skills training in OPM’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which has high response rates (44 percent+ in 2020). Right now, the survey asks people their level of agreement with the following question: “I am given a real opportunity to improve my skills in my organization.” It does not, however, explore what that means. During COVID, OPM asked its employees questions about health, safety, and remote work training, which means there is precedent for changing the questions.
  2. Combine the survey with robust marketing, outreach, and incentives, such as prizes, to ensure completion.
  3. Articulate a clear mandate (see II below) from the top about the importance of training to encourage government-wide employees to complete the survey.
  4. Continue to build self-assessment “learning pathway” tools to help government workers track what they know now and what they need to know in the future. (This is an effort already underway in the Department of Defense Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.)
  1. Articulate and widely communicate a vision for the skills public servants should know to create more effective government.
  2. Update the current legal and policy framework with the new executive order.
  3. Modernize how training is delivered by investing in new technology to make learning more accessible and outcomes easier to assess.
  4. Mandate upskilling by all public servants.
  5. Create the mechanisms for data collection and analysis to measure results.
  1. Invest in the implementation of innovation skills training for federal professionals by ensuring must-have skills are free.
  2. Accelerate the development of USALearning to create a central repository for innovation skills training.
  3. Increase the budget of OPM to deliver free training and coaching in innovation skills to agencies and departments without cost recovery.
  4. Work with philanthropy to fund the development of openly licensed training programs so that money is invested in creation of the highest quality content while reducing the marginal cost of per-seat delivery.
  5. Call upon agencies and departments to directly appropriate funding for training under their Chief Learning Officer’s Office rather than having training covered out of program budgets.
  6. Use assessment and performance data to show the value of training and be able to demonstrate how training translates into cost savings, innovations, and performance improvements.
  1. Train the Cabinet, political, and senior civil service leadership in public problem-solving to signal the importance of new ways of working to government effectiveness.
  2. Make innovation skills training mandatory for advancement to the Senior Executive Service (SES).
  3. Continue to invest in infrastructure for tracking skills and assessing competencies.
  4. Afford employees the time needed to invest in their own upskilling. Consider setting mandatory minimums for training.
  5. Develop a badging system to signal mastery of key competencies laid out in the executive order.
  6. Call upon agencies and departments to develop rewards systems, such as promotions and pay raises, for those who complete training in innovative, public problem-solving skills.
  • Defining the Problem: Generating human-centered and user-focused problem statements to guide work.
  • Equitable Service Design — Voice of the Customer: Conducting data-driven user research to capture “customers’” preferences and expectations, including engaging hard-to-reach audiences, and an introduction to persona mapping.
  • Theory of Change — identifying root causes of problems and how solutions respond to them: Learning to develop a theory of change collaboratively.
  • Field Scanning: Rapid evidence synthesis — how to learn what worked elsewhere; scavenging for solutions.
  • Leverage openly licensed content from the states like the Innovation Skills Accelerator’s curriculum for public problem solving.
  • Incorporate a new version of the Innovation Skills Accelerator into USALearning.
  • Create an advisory board of civil servants at the federal and state levels to test and advise on the design of the program along with a board of innovation skills experts.
  • Run a natural experiment comparing one department that offers the innovation skills curriculum to all employees with another that does not. Measure the results.
  • Combine this with the above steps (skills assessment, executive order, incentives, etc.) to ensure maximum uptake.
  • Advertise the opportunity for public servants to create their own free content for one another and build an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.



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