The federal government is at a crossroads, trying to manage both its traditional operations and innovative aspirations.
The dissonance of streamlining and updating how the massive apparatus functions could be best embodied by the two generations at the forefront of the discussion: Baby Boomers and Millennials. ACT-IAC used its Executive Leadership Conference to illustrate how the two sides can bring their strengths together to better the government in an Oct. 24 panel discussion called the "Experienced vs. Edgy Debates."
Using a mix of industry and government, newcomers and experts, the panel sought to identify both their different approaches and how they could work together to improve federal agencies.
Here are three takeaways from the talk:
Effecting change in government
Perhaps the longest ongoing challenge is not finding innovation in government, but being able to scale it up to a meaningful level to transform the way agencies operate.
"The biggest thing we have to do is institutionalize the change, something we've failed to do in the past," said Rob Palmer, deputy chief technology officer at the Department of Homeland Security.
"We've seen, and we see it now, these pockets of desire to go do these new things. What we've not done is really allow that to pervade throughout the entire business model."
Stan Soloway, CEO at consulting firm Celero Strategies, said through recent history the government has paradoxically embraced the desire to change, while continuing to operate on the status quo.
"I think there’s still a lot of questions as to whether we have the collective will — I’m talking about across the system — to actually make the changes we need to make," he said.
"What’s different today is, first of all, the imperative. I really do worry that if we continue to fail to embrace change in a big way, the pace of change outside is going to leave the government further behind than it is already."
Palmer said that while advanced tools and IT are becoming more diffuse in federal agencies, it’s a culture of innovation that needs to pervade.
"As a member and a leader of a technology organization, I love talking about technology, but frankly, that’s not our problem at all," he said. "The technology exists. Really what we need to do is get that desire increased throughout the community."
Defining 'acceptable failure'
A lot of the hope of instituting change rests on restocking the federal workforce with creative millennials who will bring new ideas.
But fresh approaches require trial-and-error as well as something the federal government is traditionally averse to: Risk.
"My biggest challenge is the safety net to fail," said Emily Hsu, strategic programs manager at Agile Defense and a millennial.
"A lot of times, I’ve seen ideas [be dismissed with,] ‘Well, that’s just not going to work.’ For someone on my side, who’s trying to create innovation, understanding why and having that conversation [is important.]"
Being able to develop that risk is key to innovation, Soloway said, and it requires leaders to step in as the safety valve to allow new ideas to come forward.
"I would start with the entire risk equation," he said. "Yes, we have Congress, oversight committees and it’s going to be brutal, but one of the top requirements of any senior political leader going forward ought to be a willingness to stand up and take the bullet when things go south.
"As they start to do that and start to push back, we start to create a different balance and the culture begins to change. People start to feel like they may actually be supported."
The lost generation
While much of the focus has been on marrying the new ideas of millennials to the experience of Baby Boomers, members of Generation X — who came of age in the 1990s — can often get overlooked.
When asked about Generation X’s role in shaping the future of the government, Palmer said it illustrates the manager’s job in building on your employees’ unique skills.
"I don’t care what the make-up of my team is, that’s the team that I have," he said. "I need to know each and every one of them enough to be able to put them in a place where they will succeed, both individually as well as toward the goal.
"Everybody plays their part, everybody has their role and I, as a leader, have to know what they are good at and how that contributes to the overall goal."
Hsu said that maximizing the strengths of an individual may often outweigh her initial vision of their role on her team.
"I look at leadership as more of a service more than creating crazy, big ideas," she said. "I’m there to serve my team and help them the best way that I can."