Heh UK gov - check out digital lessons from the Obama Administration

Paul Wallbank Profile picture for user pwallbank March 21, 2017
Acquia's Tom Cochran offers insights into lessons from digital government efforts under the Obama administration. He schools UK gov on the topic.

Tom Cochran acquia
Tom Cochran - Acquia

Successfully changing a public service organisation's culture requires listening to staff, communicating the need for change and equipping employees with modern technology says a veteran of the Obama administration's digital strategy.

Tom Cochran, vice president and chief digital strategist for public sector for web development company Acquia, was speaking to diginomica about his experiences in digital transformation with the US State Department and the Obama White House. He says:

I am a person who truly believes in the public sector to a fault

At the State Department, Cochran was a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State responsible for the online and offline platforms for U.S. public diplomacy, focusing on data-driven decisions and international audience engagement.

Prior to his State Department role, Cochran had a private sector interlude as Chief Technology Officer at Atlantic Media after serving as the White House's director of digital technology for two years.

At the White House Cochran worked on the President's Open Government Directive, leading the team charged with providing consistent infrastructure across all the White House's digital properties, including the “We the People” online petitioning site for citizens to directly lobby the executive branch.

One of the lessons learned by Cochran and the rest of the Obama team is the cultural change from running a campaign to managing the US government's highest office is substantial. Something that's been felt by the current administration.

The problem is everyone compares the 08 campaign and sees massive innovation before the election and then you get to the White House and it's still a government website. It's an unfair comparison as when you go into government you have thousands of rules that prevent you from doing things or requires a specific path. You have prescribed procurement paths, during the campaign you say 'I have a problem, let's go solve it.'

In the government you say 'I have a problem' and it's 'let's write out your requirements, here's your six month procurement process and you can only use these thirty-three vendors who may be substandard or no good and the only reason they are on the list is because they understand how the contracting process works.'

That is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges you face when you go into government

Another shift was to open source software, a battle that was largely over by the time Cochran joined the White House, although challenges in areas like procurement still remained.

I came in at '11 into the White House so the battles were largely over. The big challenge was saying to the lawyers 'we want to use software that's free.' Can you imagine explaining that to a government lawyer who just can't seem to wrap their heads around procuring something that's free?

You have a procurement model that's built up over decades that's geared around buying 'things' like laptops, desks, battleships – tangible things and not something that's free which has a GPL, not something that's free and you're procuring the service around it. It's an education campaign and it can be really difficult.

A lot of the work was rewriting policy and educating people on the inside.

The education role is one of the key aspects of driving digital change within an organisation, Cochrane believes, where most of the work involves convincing the middle ground to adopt new technologies – a process not unlike politics itself.

The default stance in government is very traditionally 'no' as opposed to the private sector where it's 'yes' unless you can figure out a reason not to do it. So the aversion to risk can be extremely high to the point where it can be difficult to innovate.

My job was almost exclusively non-technical in nature, I had to sell ideas, I had to go around buildings and galvanise people. I had to engage in grass root campaigns and get people on board. But really it's about people and partnerships and relationships and figuring out ways to make other people in the building feel like the idea is their idea.

Not surprisingly given Acquia's business of developing Drupal based websites, Cochran sees the monolithic approach towards government websites championed by the UK's GDS and the former boss of Australia's Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler, as being flawed.

I look at the project in the UK – the single website .gov.uk – and I see parts that are good and parts that are not so good.

I'm of the opinion that a single website for a national government is an attempt to have a one size fits all and that's kind of a dangerous way to approach things. You aren't really thinking of the nuanced ways different departments work.

If you scale that up by a factor of ten or twenty, there is no way that will work in the United States because it doesn't acknowledge the human or bureaucratic element.

You're seeing this play out in Canada where they are trying to do the UK play where they have a single website for the government - they are over budget, overtime and this is where we talk about risk and failure. It's very difficult for someone to say 'we failed'.

IT projects at scale are really difficult to succeed at, I think it's almost impossible to find a project that's succeeded at scale. It's possible to find projects that have succeeded in chunks and then build on them and become successful.

Cochran offers three key points of advice for those wanting to digitally transform public sector organisations with listening as being the most important, he boast that he took each of his 140 strong team out to lunch to hear their views and perspectives on changing the agency.

Listening is number one, number two is communicating to people in the organisation that risk is an imperative and is a necessary component of change.

Number three is you need to enable your teams with technology, you can't go into a digital change program with BlackBerries, ten year old operating systems. These are very basic things, you need to make sure people have the right tools to do their jobs otherwise it is completely unrealistic to expect they can do what you want them to do.

My take

Tom Cochran's experience of working in two high profile US government agencies helps him pass on valuable lessons for those trying to run public sector digital transformation projects. His views on the need for bringing in various stakeholders within an organisation are obvious but seem to be often overlooked by many running these programs.

Having said that, many of the topics he refers to as they relate to procurement will be familiar to regular diginomica/gov readers.

While his view towards all of government projects is understandably slanted away from whole of government digital projects, there are important messages for politicians, agency heads and private sector boards looking at changing the culture and technology use of their organisations. Those messages transcend geo-political boundaries.

Image credit - Free images and LinkedIn

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