As deputy administrator of GSA, Adam Neufeld plays a key role in bringing technological innovation and problem solving to the federal government.
Here, he talks with The Public Manager about the GSA's work in expanding the government's capacity to use technology to solve problems through such initiatives as 18F and the Technology Transformation Service. He also reflects on how the government can continue building a tech-savvy workforce.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to work for the GSA.
I started in the federal government as a lawyer a dozen years ago with the Department of Labor. I really enjoyed all the subject matter, but I quickly realized that law was not for me. Turns out I'm an extrovert, and being heads down for a few weeks at a time writing a brief didn't make me happy.
I then went over to the Federal Election Commission and worked for its chairman in a partly legal, partly management job. I decided that I really liked the management part, so I moved even farther away from law and policy and went to McKinsey, where I did a combination of private and public sector strategic consulting for a couple of years. I realized there that while I liked the management, I especially liked when it's applied to government. I just love the scale of the problems in government and the trickiness that comes with all the stakeholder complexity and rules. Not to mention, I feel motivated by government's ability, when it's working well, to impact a lot of people in a fantastic way.
I was fortunate to get the opportunity to join the administration in the Office of Management and Budget doing management policy. I was there for a couple of years when I was offered a position as chief of staff for the new GSA administrator. When the president asked Denise Turner Roth to be the administrator, she asked me to stay on as deputy. So I've now been here about three and a half years and have loved it.
Tell us about the GSA's new Technology Transformation Service.
It's helpful to understand the Technology Transformation Service (TTS) in its historical context. It's the third iteration of this idea of bringing increased digital technical expertise in-house to help agencies. The first iteration of that was the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which came out of the Department of Health and Human Services Entrepreneurs-in-Residence effort. I think that effort tested the assumption that government could bring in Silicon Valley people and other entrepreneurs to help get stuff done. These outsiders could be paired with really great government people and make a difference. But that was at a small level.
The second iteration, in my opinion, was the creation of 18F, where a bunch of former Presidential Innovation Fellows stayed on at GSA, and the creation of the United States Digital Service. The question now was, "Can we build this not as a one-year detail where people come in from the outside, but as a sustained resource that can be available to help on projects of varying size and scope?" Sometimes agencies need one person for a year, but sometimes they need a couple of people for a month. Or they need a particular expert for six months or a massive team for a year and a half. Others may need help with buying, or building, or whatever it is.
That was version 2.0, and we've seen agencies really excited about this sort of support. In monetary terms, 18F has done about $50 million, and that means we're meeting new needs that agencies face.
TTS is the third iteration, which is embedding these efforts into the organizational fabric of GSA and the federal government overall. This effort is now something that is here not just for a year but for the long term. It means that we can fulfill the fundamental mission of helping agencies assess their technology needs, buy their technology solutions, and understand how get the most value out of technology across the board.
What is the GSA currently doing to help other agencies rethink their technological offerings?
GSA aims to help agencies with their technology needs, whatever they may be. Each agency has vastly different circumstances—ranging from where they need assistance, to how they need assistance, to what types of assistance they need. GSA will bring the relevant people and offices depending on what they need.
For example, the Federal Acquisition Service is there to help them buy common goods and services in the smartest way possible, whether through existing vehicles or assistance in a specific context. Or if the agency is looking for help in adopting modern technologies or improving their digital service, TTS can help them explore options to build it or buy it, whatever makes the most sense.
Our idea is to recognize what agencies need and to meet them where they are. So, for example, we're experimenting more with partnering with the private sector to offer platforms. Login.gov and Cloud.gov are two efforts to combine GSA's technical expertise and our procurement expertise to meet government needs. Whatever the need, GSA should be a central place that an agency can go to for help.
Technology and an organization's culture often go hand in hand. Can you talk about that link, particularly how it affects organizational change?
It's important to make sure everyone recognizes technology is just a means to an end, not the end in itself. A lot of times, people jump to the conclusion that a specific technological fix will address any issue.
When considering a technological change, it's important to consider two ways that good technology development is tied to organizational culture. One is a relentless focus on the user, and the second is a desire to make small bets in an agile way, along the lines of start-up principles. When it comes to user focus, we often have to back up and ask, "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" Sometimes there is a technological solution, but a lot of times there isn't—or technology is only part of it. An organization's culture must be willing to take that step back.
Second, I think we should be humble when it comes to predicting the effects of any technology or anything else we do. The government works at a scale that is just incredible, and we should recognize that everything we do has some error rate—and oftentimes a very significant error rate. We should look for situations where we can make small bets to confirm if we're on the right course. Some of those wagers will be technology based, some will not. But before we invest massive amounts of dollars in technology or any other thing, we should figure out a way to confirm that our assumptions are actually true, and change course if they're not. This is more of a cultural challenge than a technological one.
How can agency leaders ensure changes will be integrated into culture, particularly when it comes to a technological offering or service?
When I came to GSA, I expected the biggest transition would be moving from an agency that has 500 or so people to an agency that has 11,500 people. Well, it turns out that the biggest change for me was the technology. I wasn't used to Google Docs or Salesforce, for example.
Whenever people come from another agency to GSA, I tell them the technology transition will take a little while. It is incumbent on agencies to help their workforce with this, to recognize that you just can't throw a technology out there and expect everyone to be fine with it. Sometimes you have to hold people's hand and make it safe for them. This is just part of working in an organization today. We view that as an exciting thing, and GSA has done some things to help employees transition to new technologies comfortably.
For example, when it comes to data literacy, we have done massive amounts of training for our managers and our employees to help them understand how to interpret data visualization and use data tools. We think everyone is capable of using all these technologies, but we need to recognize that it's something to learn, not something most people absorb naturally.
Could you tell us about the personnel challenges federal government agencies are currently facing and what they can do to attract the types of talent that are going to be required to use the newest technological tools?
I think the biggest challenge of attracting tech-savvy talent is that many existing employees don't have the right connections to these types of individuals. You may know what skills or experience you want to bring in, but have no idea how to tap into that talent pool.
The GSA is lucky to have a strong base to build on, but it's important to maintain a strong recruitment pipeline. When it's time to recruit, you have to get the word out, both internally and externally. This means you have to work a little harder.
Additionally, the stigma of government work among some is fading. Some people still view it as a tough job with little reward, but most people respond positively. This shift in attitudes regarding public service is making a huge impact, but it's still tough to reach certain types of talent.
We have to reach people who may never have thought about government work before and then walk them through the process. So our entry-level hiring program is inclusive and intensive. We assist them every step of the way, we do a very detailed assessment, and then we fully onboard new hiresto make sure they have a really good experience from the very start.
How do you communicate the importance of public sector work to individuals in the private tech sector? What works and what doesn't work in attracting people who may have never considered work in government?
I think people usually react positively to the idea of public service. Some people love a particular agency's mission, other folks are enamored at the scale of federal government work. Things in government are in billions of dollars, millions of people, massive impacts across the country. I find that people are pretty receptive to it when you give them that information.
That isn't to say it's easy, though. Actively recruiting and trying to convince people of the importance of public service, while significant, takes a lot of time. Through active outreach, the GSA has now reached a tipping point when it comes to recruiting technology talent. People know about us. They follow our blogs, they read our articles. And we're seeing more and more people coming to us, instead of us coming to them. I don't think there will ever be a world where the government doesn't have to go out and show people why they should be serving, but that gap is closing.
Is there anything else that you'd like to share regarding the technological evolution of the public sector? What should leaders be aware of, and what advice can you give looking toward the future?
We're just at the beginning of incorporating technology thoroughly into the public sector. The government spends $80 billion or so on IT annually, and technology is a core part of so many public sector operations. However, if you compare it to private sector entities, or think about how people use technology elsewhere, we're just scratching the surface in meeting user needs.
There are areas where you'll see government's technological interactions with the public looking more like the private sector. Beyond that, it's really an open question what will happen. There'll be false starts along the way, and there'll be certain technologies people don't react well to. This gets back to the point of making small bets and testing a lot.
Before we invest in massive technology projects, it's incumbent on us to really test our assumptions, and we need to constantly move toward doing what the customers need and meeting them where they are. If we do that, we will get all the value we could ever imagine in technology and really help reshape the public's interaction with its government.
Watch Adam Neufeld's keynote address on "Innovation and the Future of Government" from the September 2016 Government Workforce Conference (member-exclusive video).