Old Dog, New Tricks

Retraining and the Road to Government Reform

By Beth Simone Noveck

Tagged federal governmentGovernmentinnovationworkers

As Chief Innovation Officer for the State of New Jersey, I am required, as all public servants are, to watch annual “active shooter” and sexual harassment training videos. At the federal level, the nation’s 2.1 million civilian public servants are also obligated to take cyber security, whistleblower, and workplace safety training, as well as receive instruction on the basics of the Constitution. Though these educational programs protect us as workers, they do little to improve our ability to design and deliver effective public policies and services.

Now, with the federal government poised to undertake the highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, there is an urgent need to upgrade the public sector’s capacity to tackle existing challenges and to train public servants to solve problems more effectively.

Countless failures during the COVID pandemic have highlighted the importance of a truly functional government. The acute challenges of the pandemic, in addition to explosive unemployment and rising poverty, have only amplified chronic failures to address racial inequity, economic inequality, climate change, and our rotting infrastructure. Yet our nation’s largest employer has no real strategy for training its workforce to meet the demands of the future.

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.

To be sure, one strategy for modernizing government is hiring new people with fresh skills in the fields of technology, data science, design, and marketing. Today, only 6 percent of the federal workforce is under 30 and, if age is any proxy for mastery of these in-demand new skills, then efforts by non-profits such as the Partnership for Public Service and the Tech Talent Project to attract a younger generation to work in the public sector are crucial. But we will not reinvent government fast enough through hiring alone.

The crucial and overlooked mechanism for improving government effectiveness is, therefore, to change how people work by training public servants across departments to use data and collective intelligence at each stage of the problem-solving process to foster more informed decision-making, more innovative solutions to problems, and more agile implementation of what works. All around the world we have witnessed how, when public servants work differently, government solves problems better.

Jonathan Wachtel, the lone city planner in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, has been able to undertake 500 sustainability projects because he knows how to collaborate and codesign with a network of 20,000 residents. When former Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu launched an initiative to start using data and resident engagement to address the city’s abysmal murder rate, that effort led to a 25 percent reduction in homicides in two years and a further decline to its lowest levels in 50 years by 2019. Because Samir Brahmachari, former Secretary, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, of the government of India, turned to crowdsourcing and engaged the assistance of 7,900 contributors, he was able to identify six already-approved drugs that showed promised in the fight against tuberculosis.

Yet a 2019 survey I designed and conducted to assess the use of innovative problem-solving skills of over 400 local public officials in the United States shows that only half are using new data-analytical or collaborative skills in their work. Only 28 percent of these public officials use agile techniques, developed in the technology industry, to work faster with greater testing and experimentation. While 60 percent say they use problem definition, not much more than half of the same group, when probed, say they know how to define a hypothesis, the most basic feature of problem definition. We have repeated this study in multiple countries with similar results: The public sector’s failure to use creative problem-solving methods that take advantage of collective intelligence and data is widespread. And it is little wonder when public servants are not getting trained to work differently.

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.

This Clinton-era Executive Order (13111—Using Technology to Improve Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees) set up a task force on federal training technology and instructed each agency to “include as part of its annual budget process a set of goals to provide the highest quality and most efficient training opportunities possible to its employees,” along with outcome measures. At that time, Vice President Al Gore had only just “invented” the Internet. The Information Superhighway was still a two-lane road. Big data, artificial intelligence, and today’s prolific social and communications technologies did not exist.

The Government Employee Training Act (GETA), the main body of law regarding training of federal employees, is even older. Enacted in 1958, it has not been amended since 2004. The law grants the President, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and individual executive agency heads the ability to set training requirements. OPM has overall responsibility for establishing the regulations and collecting data about each agency’s training program.

Despite these long-standing rules, there is little to no information online about existing training budgets or programs. Departments generally do not publish their training goals or conduct research about training effectiveness, and it is hard to know what civil servants are or are not learning. Interviews with Chief Human Capital (CHCO) and Chief Learning Officers (CLO) at federal departments and agencies reveal a wide variety of practices, platforms, and offerings.

Tom Kalil, a leader in innovation policy for presidents Clinton and Obama, comments that, although the Obama Administration tried to get federal agencies interested in adopting new approaches to problem solving, such as using open data, incentive prizes, or human-centered design, results were mixed. “I think we were successful in persuading early adopters, but certainly not driving widespread awareness and adoption,” Kalil told me.

The failure to upgrade government training policy is not new, but disinvestment in the public sector found its nadir under Donald Trump.

The failure to upgrade government-training policy is therefore not new, although disinvestment in the public sector found its nadir during the Trump Administration, which was actively hostile to public servants and ceased interagency gatherings centered on learning and training, according to one senior government official.

Under the Reagan Administration, what political scientists have nicknamed the “anti-analytical presidency,” public sector analytical units decreased in size. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued the trend, despite their own personal strengths in policy analysis. Both concentrated and politicized policymaking in the Office of Management and Budget because it sits within the Executive Office of the President and rejected the decentralized problem-finding machinery of the existing bureaucracy—of functionaries whose work limited the power and discretion of elected political leaders and whom Trump liked to refer to as the “deep state.” Moreover, hyper-partisanship may contribute to a failure to invest in public sector capacity. Public policy professors Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones have written in The Politics of Information: Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America that our political culture has shifted to a “model of decision-making based on hierarchical control, with less concern for analytics, information, and contrasting voices.”

While federal departments do offer a plethora of training programs in everything from ethics to plain English writing to records management, as well as technical training for specific jobs (i.e., nuclear plant engineer or food safety inspector), the federal government has not made a widespread investment in universal training and skill-building. It has not made a bet on those skills public servants need to know to succeed in the twenty-first century. The most recent “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey indicated that only 66 percent of public servants feel encouraged to develop “new and better ways of doing their jobs, trailing private sector employees by 7.4 percentage points.” As one department senior official commented to me: “Being able to deliver on program requirements with a shrinking workforce even though program requirements are growing limits the amount of time that managers can have to invest in employee development.”

This inattention to skills training within our federal government stands in stark contrast both to the private sector and to foreign governments. Leading private sector companies advance their strategic goals through workforce training and development. In an effort to bolster the transition from hardware to service offerings, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty spearheaded the creation of design thinking training for the entire organization. IBM conducts design boot camps for new hires. According to an MIT Working Paper, 89 percent of the IBM workforce has visited the company’s internal training platform, Your Learning. The organization expects every employee to spend a minimum of 40 hours in training and professional development each year. The investment in training pays off. According to the paper’s authors Fei Qin and Thomas Kochan, “[t]he results show that time spent on learning and achievement of internal credentials the company calls ‘badges’ is positively associated with (1) achievement of sales targets, a key measure of performance for sales staff, and (2) career advancement as measured by movement up levels in the salary bands governing these occupations.”

At the same time, forward-leaning governments around the world are far ahead of the United States in seeking to transform their workforce through training. For example, Singapore’s Civil Service Training College, to achieve its vision of creating a “smart nation,” mandates technology and digital skills training for its 145,000 civilian public servants. Although civil servants are free, in conversation with their supervisors, to choose among a wide array of offerings from the college’s new Learn.gov.sg training platform, including courses offered by U.S. online learning providers like Coursera and EdX, the Civil Service College is making a concerted push to teach digital literacy as a core competence.

To support the Chancellor’s vision for a more digital government, Germany’s federal academy of public administration launched a Digital Academy in late May of 2021. As its website explains: “The digital academy is not concerned solely with education as it relates to technological innovations (i.e., big data or artificial intelligence), but all areas that are affected by the digital transformation of administrative work, such as the new working methods known as New Work.” While it is too soon to know the impact, the government is making a big bet that it can only accomplish its policy goals and change the culture of governance in Germany by training people to work differently at scale.

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.

I. Conduct a Training Needs Analysis: Assess What People Know and What They Want to Learn
To develop an effective training strategy, the Biden Administration needs to glean a better picture of current skill levels. While there are 27 mandatory data elements that agencies must collect about federal employee training, none of this information is designed to assess skill gaps, nor is it available as open data for analysis. Beyond demographics and job titles, too little information is available about our public workforce. The problem is not the existence of useful performance data, but rather, willingness and ability to use such data to glean insights for improvement.

The Administration should therefore begin by conducting a “training needs analysis” to measure the current state of innovative problem-solving skills and understand what people know, what they would like to know, and how they learn best. For instance, AT&T conducts a gap analysis of what its employees know to guide its $250 million annual training budget. Each employee has her own learner profile that she can use to track skill acquisition and progression toward requirements for open positions across the company.

Other governments, too, are assessing current know-how. In 2017, the Chilean government commissioned the OECD to conduct a study on the pervasiveness of innovation skills in its public workforce to inform its training strategy. The OECD team conducted interviews with 90 public servants and surveyed over 150 people. The research, while based on a small sample, documented that innovation skills exist only in pockets within the Chilean public sector but without any coherent framework to bring them together or systematize them in public practice.

The Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the International City and County Management Association in the United States commissioned me to design a much larger survey of innovation skills. The GovLab has run the survey in four countries (Australia, New Zealand, Paraguay, and local governments within the United States) with plans to administer this questionnaire to 700,000+ public servants in Germany. The survey reveals limited use of skills such as problem definition, conducting an evidence review, or using collective intelligence and data to solve problems. Tellingly, however, once people knew and used an innovative skill, they applied it much of the time in their work.

While a federal regulation requires all agencies and departments to conduct annual raining needs assessments, completion rates, one CLO told me, are “woefully low.” By contrast, Dr. Karlease Kelly, former Provost of the USDA Virtual University and Chief Learning Officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimates that the USDA increased its completion rate from roughly 30 percent to 95 percent because leadership made completion a top priority.

Therefore, the Biden Administration should:

  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.)

ii. Teach Must-Have Skills by Issuing a New Executive Order on Training and Capacity Building
There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the future of work in the private sector. But neither federal nor state employees are required to learn any of the skills that governance innovation groups, such as OECD, Bloomberg Philanthropies, or Living Cities have identified as essential for every civil servant. No one is required to take a course in artificial intelligence or data analysis or how to use technology to engage the public.

While chief learning officers (who report to the chief human capital officer) generally have jurisdiction over the implementation of training programs, they do not articulate the vision for training. It is left up to leadership to provide mission and vision for training. Agency leaders are incredibly busy and often under-resourced. For an agency leader to push any initiative, training or otherwise, she must be sure that the initiative will advance the agency’s strategic goals. Alternatively, the uptake of training resources depends heavily on whether senior agency leaders are emphasizing a training initiative’s importance. As one chief learning officer of a major Cabinet department articulated to me: “Whether somebody goes and signs up for OPM Human Centered Design training is going to depend entirely on the message from their senior management, but there isn’t necessarily a push to say we should get all people to do this kind of training.” Agency leaders have little incentive to embrace innovative upskilling initiatives and individual employees largely adopt the incentives of agency leadership. This dynamic highlights the necessity of a top-down emphasis from the Biden Administration on training federal employees in “must-have” skills.

I would summarize the must-have twenty-first century problem-solving skills as those quantitative and qualitative methods needed to solve problems more effectively and equitably.

These include the ability to: define a problem and its root causes so that we can design a solution that works and to do so with the benefit of data- and human-centered design. Thus, for example, using data from the calls people make to New Jersey’s 211 hotline has enabled the State’s Office of Innovation to design a website that posts the responses to the most frequently asked questions front and center. That site receives a million users a week. Similarly, the State’s Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), with the help of my Office, used website analytics to inform the redesign of MVC’s online presence. NJMVC.gov won the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Award for best website in 2021.

Knowing how to define a problem using human-centered design, namely with the input of those most affected by the problem, is the difference between delivering a service that works and one that does not. In New Zealand, for example, when public officials talked to parents of newborn children, they learned about their frustrations with government services for issues as apparently straightforward as obtaining a birth certificate. Parents were struggling to find the information they needed across a variety of different government websites. In response, officials brought all relevant services into one website called SmartStart, designed to provide one-stop shopping for new parents. Without talking to new parents, public officials would not have understood the problem, the intensity of their frustrations, or how to address them.

Effective public officials need to know, too, how to tap the wisdom of our communities, universities, and industries for innovative solutions to those problems as well. Thus, since 2010, more than 100 federal agencies have run nearly 1,200 challenges via Challenge.gov. NASA has regularly used prize-backed challenges to spur crowdsourcing of innovative solutions to a variety of scientific and computational challenges. Knowing how to forge partnerships to implement and evaluate what works at scale with the benefit of accurate data and robust collaboration are as important as identifying problems or devising solutions. That is why Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has regularly partnered with private sector companies to overcome hurdles to development challenges.

Investing in innovation saves money. A source estimates that thanks to the DITAP program on digital procurements, one agency alone saved $1 billion.

All together, these problem-solving skills offer a process for more agile and rapid means of action, implementation, and validation. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will only make it easier to make sense of large quantities of data and information to inform decision-making and respond better to people’s needs. But to be clear, these are not simply hi-tech or digital skills. Rather, these quantitative and qualitative strategies reflect more informed and equitable ways of solving problems. However, because technologies help to accelerate and enable these techniques, a basic introduction to digital technologies is a means to the end of new ways of working. For example, without a basic understanding of how people communicate and collaborate via the Internet, as well as the tools available to make such outreach possible, it will be hard to achieve the Administration’s priority of “accessible and meaningful agency engagement with underserved communities.”

Within the federal government, there are already precedents for teaching new skills. For example, more than 400 people have graduated from the recently created (2016) Digital IT Acquisition Professional Program (DITAP). This certification program trains contracting professionals “to execute digital service procurements by acting as business advisors to agencies seeking to buy better digital services.” Digital.gov University courses, offered by the General Services Administration (GSA), provides a range of free programs on innovations in government. Webinars include programs in plain English writing for the web and designing websites with good user experience.

While these innovation skills are a floor rather than a ceiling and there will be ongoing demand for all kinds of learning, from conflict management to effective communication, at present, training varies from agency to agency with no requirement that public servants possess even a basic minimum of these skills that other governments around the world and the private sector have defined as essential in the twenty-first century.

To create incentives for the uptake of innovation skills training, the Biden Administration should issue a new Executive Order on training and capacity building to:

  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.

III. Make it Free
If the Administration believes that all public servants should understand how to engage equitably with the public, use data and evidence to understand problems, rapidly scavenge for solutions that work, and work in new ways then it needs to ensure that such public problem-solving training is free. The current practice of cost recovery, whereby an agency must pay OPM for training, is outdated and counterproductive.

While federal and state governments purchase training from third parties such as IDEO University, Skillsoft, or 2U, which are commercial online training providers, core training in innovation skills needs to be free to departments and agencies to increase uptake, just as the mandated OSHA workplace safety trainings are. Agencies are not required to reimburse the Department of Labor for the cost.

Investing in innovation saves money in the long run. Thanks to the DITAP training program on digital IT procurements, a participating agency saved $1 billion. With more than 83 percent of participants saying they will use the skills learned on the job, if the $7,000 cost of the course is creating a barrier to more procurement professionals learning these skills, then the fee is penny wise and many, many pounds foolish. Despite the benefits, innovation training in government is expensive: OPM’s Center for Leadership Development, for example, charges $2,200 per person for its course “Enabling 21st Century Leaders” and $3,500 per person for its “Civic Design Studio”—far more than the cost of offering the course.

The German Digital Academy offers video-based, online training that is both accessible government-wide, as well as free to ensure widespread participation. Canada’s “Busrides” training platform is also freely accessible to its public servants. The Canada Digital Academy offers short online readings, videos, and podcasts called “Busrides” that have the potential to reach 250,000 Canadian government officials. The content, designed to expand public servants’ digital awareness, includes modules on digital skills, data analysis, design, development, and automation, evolutionary technologies, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

The back-end infrastructure is already in place to host free, government-wide training in digital, innovation, and data skills. To aid federal agencies in making such training available, OPM created the Knowledge Portal project, whereby OPM does the contracting on behalf of agencies for new training products, which are then integrated into USALearning.gov and made accessible to agency employees. OPM centrally contracts for content from Coursera, EdX or Skillsoft to reduce both duplication and cost. For example, all the Department of Defense’s learning and training takes place through this website to avoid a proliferation of different learning management systems. The Knowledge Portal effort aims to establish an enterprise-wide course catalog so that all employees have access to the same content. Right now, departments and agencies each may have their own learning management systems (and often more than one). Thus, multiple programs within an agency might have their own course library. OPM is working with the Department of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative to tag and label course content so that it is easily discoverable across the federal government. While these developments by themselves do not address the need to upskill public servants in key twenty-first century skills, the physical infrastructure and contracting vehicles exist to avoid an ad-hoc approach to training and make it feasible to create a government-wide, online training program in innovation skills.

Thanks to new technology, the marginal costs of delivering training at scale can be close to zero. But even where cost is incurred in developing and delivering the course, it is unclear that charging exorbitant per-seat fees makes sense.

The Biden Administration should, therefore:

  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.

IV. Create Incentives to Learn New Skills
Even if courses were free and accessible, there is still a need to create incentives for individuals to invest their own scarce time in upskilling. It can be difficult for people to know such training exists, let alone want to take it. The Lab at OPM offers exciting (albeit expensive) courses in innovation skills but is prohibited from advertising those programs because of the need to get clearance for public pronouncements. Training is not advertised in the Federal Register.

Even when courses are readily available, public servants are all too familiar with “drinking from a firehose” and lack the time for professional development, especially without a mandate or incentive to take new courses.

Once again, the United States can learn from incentive programs in other countries. Since 2016, Argentina’s Laboratorio de Gobierno (LabGobAr) has trained 36,000 federal, provincial, and local officials in its Design Academy for Public Policy, and its goal is to scale to a quarter million. The LabGob Design Academy teaches iteration, design, and digital thinking, data use as evidence, curiosity, and flexibility, and new narratives and collaboration. In Argentina, for every class taken, a public servant earns points, which are a prerequisite for promotions and pay raises in the Argentinian civil service. This points system uses the behavioral insight of “gamification” to create the motivation for people to take the training despite otherwise busy schedules and competing demands for their time and attention.

Furthermore, striving for scale and training tens of thousands of people creates a buzz around the training that makes people want to sign up or risk being left out. In Singapore, there previously was a mandate for civil servants to take 100 hours of training each year, or about one day each month. In some cases, courses are still compulsory. But now, instead of a mandate, the Civil Service College also makes some courses competitive so that when a civil servant’s boss nominates an employee to participate, it is considered a reward and an honor. Song Hsi Ching, senior researcher at the Singapore Institute of Governance and Policy, has further emphasized the role of the “fear factor” of being left behind in motivating people to learn of their own accord.

The Biden Administration should invest in implementation of innovation skills training by ensuring that must-have skills are free.

One other way to create that “buzz” and communicate the demand for training to all employees is to train Cabinet and senior leadership first, as they have done in Germany. Employees who work at an agency with a culture of embracing innovation tend to be much more interested and engaged in learning and better able to make use of the skills learned, reports Anna Taleysnik-Mehta, Senior Manager at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, where she oversees  the strategy, design, and execution of the Partnership’s cross-agency leadership development programs. Such training can be provided during a Cabinet retreat, for example. For leadership to reinforce President Biden’s vision for better government, it is vital that they understand the value of these skills.

In the United States, OPM is also hoping to create an incentive for training by developing a universal learner record (tied to one’s federal ID card) for tracking what someone has taken and what they need to learn to achieve mastery in desired skill areas. Infrastructure and standards for federal ID cards are managed by GSA whereas the learner record is being developed by OPM. Both projects involve heavy collaboration with DoD, which, in turn, is developing the standard for labeling learning content and making it searchable. Such an assessment system should also make it possible to customize courses so that someone with knowledge of IT security, for example, will not have to take the same cyber security course as someone who is digitally illiterate.

To create greater incentives for learning twenty-first century skills, the Biden Administration should:

  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.

V. Pilot Offering an Innovation Skills Program at one Cabinet Department
Public sector entrepreneurs are solving a vast range of problems, from “using sensors to detect potholes; word pedometers to help students learn; harnessing behavioral economics to encourage organ donation; crowdsourcing patent review; and transforming Medellin, Colombia with cable cars,” writes Mitchell Weiss, professor of public entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, in the Harvard Business Review.

In the twenty-first century, the public entrepreneur should know how to use both data-analytical methods and qualitative approaches to solve problems. While there exists a plethora of courses about each thanks to widely prevalent, massively open online course platforms, public institutions need to ensure that public servants have at least a basic understanding of both as they apply to working in government.

At least one Cabinet department should pilot offering an online innovation skill curriculum to its workforce. By offering the program first to only one department, it will be possible to run a natural experiment to test the outcomes. Such a natural experiment, combined with insights from the skills assessment survey, will help to provide the evidence needed to scale such training government-wide or to revisit the plan.

In order to undertake such a pilot at little to no cost, the federal government can use the innovation skills training program we have built in the State of New Jersey, where the Office of Innovation has taken advantage of new technology to create just such a free online training program in public problem-solving skills that we call the Innovation Skills Accelerator. We created the program because we found that our ability to innovate from a small office within the government depended on working with agency partners who understood modern ways of working, such as using data and human-centered design to solve problems.

Informed by the vision articulated above for the skills every public servant needs to have in the twenty-first century, this 12-part, video-based program covers both quantitative and qualitative approaches to problem solving as well as an introduction to the basic digital literacy needed to understand how to use these new ways of working in practice. Each module comprises a short lecture focused on how to apply the skill, combined with how-to exercises, and is accompanied by practitioner interviews, readings, and self-assessments. It is a baseline introduction to ensure familiarity and a common understanding of what these skills are and why they matter in government.

Once employees have completed the online course, they are then eligible for dozens of live, online boot camps that we offer for free and online every other week to deepen their understanding of these and related topics, such as:

  • 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.

The entire program is managed by two people yet available at no marginal cost to every one of our 70,000 public servants. Vendors are still free to sell training to the state.

Now we are expanding the program to multiple states. The content on the platform is openly licensed, enabling us to share it with states and the federal government. We have recreated a version of the program on a modern learning management system called Moodle (the same open-source learning management system integrated into USALearning.gov). The free program is available at www.solvingpublicproblems.org.

The self-assessments on this newer version of the site tell you what you got wrong and why. The lectures are complemented by 30-plus interviews with public problem solvers about how they have applied these skills in practice. Even the highest quality training program can leave people feeling abandoned when they return to their desk to face the challenge of innovating within a bureaucracy. Therefore, our interviews as well as interactive worksheets available for every topic help people to know how to use and apply those skills in daily practice.

The next iteration of the offering will update the core innovation skills training curriculum and also incorporate optional content and lectures from more diverse and varied lecturers while enabling other partners, including universities, to supply free courses for those who want to go deeper into any one of the innovation skills in the program.

We will expand our lecture series, including interviews with civil servants, explaining how they have used a skill in practice. In addition, we will add the ability for people, including public officials themselves, to add their own free courses for one another. For example, to augment the training on human-centered design or open data, there is every reason to invite people in agencies and departments to contribute their experience applying these skills in the way that billions of people contribute to and learn from user-generated content on WikiHow.

To pilot innovation skills training in the federal government, the Biden Administration should:

  • 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.

The United States Digital Service, the White House’s team of designers, engineers, and product managers who work to support government modernization by redesigning citizen services, teaches in its “Playbook” that new projects should be designed with “agile and iterative” practices. If we want to create more innovative mindsets and skill sets in the federal government then we need to design this program in the same nimble and responsive way we hope our public servants will carry out their work. There is no need for a multi-million-dollar, multi-year procurement. Rather, we should start by making free, high-quality innovation skills training available, testing the outcomes, and evolving the program to provide public servants with today’s latest tools to tackle tomorrow’s hardest problems.

In recent survey work, political scientist Paul Light finds that Americans are “dissatisfied with the way things are going these days” and “think the federal government is doing a poor job running its programs” and is “almost always wasteful and inefficient.” Many Americans believe that government simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing. But, surprisingly, the number of what he terms “rebuilders,” namely those who want a bigger government that offers more services but who also want major reform has almost doubled with a particularly sharp increase before the 2020 election. Yet the Biden Administration has been noticeably silent about government reform and modernization.

There is, however, a clear path forward following the lead of other forward-leaning governments around the world. The key to reforming and modernizing government is to train public servants to work differently by taking advantage of the new tools and approaches available today for improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of how we solve problems. If we invest in upskilling the public sector in innovative skills, we will reduce government failures, improve effectiveness, and thereby restore much-needed trust in government.

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Beth Simone Noveck is the author of the new book Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World (Yale Univ. Press 2021). She is a Professor at Northeastern University, where she directs the Burnes Center for Social Change and its partner program The Governance Lab. The author wishes to thank Kyle Begis for his extraordinary research assistance.

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