Where’s the Greatest Government Generation?

Last week I attended a dinner hosted in Washington, DC by the terrific group ACT/IAC about the topic of Government 2.0 and innovation.  One thing that occured to us during the formal discussion period was that during World War II and the early days of the Cold War afterwards, there was simply less bureaucracy, and things like getting a government job just took less time.

When we talk about attracting the Millennial generation into the government workforce, and when we talk about innovating to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, we’re often thinking about futuristic digital technology.  But we rarely look back.  In the 40s, 50s, and 60s there was a great deal of innovation taking place – the federal government was scaled up, the Pentagon was built in a matter of months, the OSS and CIA were created (and were relatively effective), and so on.

It’s hard to imagine doing that so quickly today.  Just think about the U.S. government’s official job portal, USAJobs.  I don’t know anyone who’s had a pleasureable experience with USAJobs (whether they got the job or not).  It can be so offputting, some people just give up.  That’s not a great message to send about how urgently we need smart young people in government.  Where’s the concierge to guide you to a job that suits your unique skill set?

This “fierce urgency of not right now” is something I have written about for a while.  One idea we had at the dinner was to gather people from “The Greatest Generation” who have been working in and around government for 40 years together in a forum where they can teach us how to innovate by looking backward to what they did then.  Tom Brokaw could moderate, even.

I think that if a lot of government leaders and managers took some time out from their day-to-day work and listened to and conversed with these veterans, everyone would learn a lot.  And we may get some fresh old ideas about how to make Government 2.0 happen with some urgency.  Simplify, get back to basics, decide what’s truly important, make a plan, and innovate.

Update 9:46am – Chris Matthews was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program this morning (right after I wrote this) talking about health care and how America needs to “get it done.”  Normally I would be on the side of asking more questions, making value judgements, looking at costs and tradeoffs, and so forth.  But maybe I’ve become caught up in this too.  It’s not always great to rush into things, but Matthews’ point (which he was getting hammered on by the host) was simply: Do you want universal health care in America or not? If you do, we have to get it done.  I have to respect the blunt argument given the above.

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Susannah Fox Says:

    Hi Mark,

    If you do organize that event, you should definitely talk with (and maybe invite) Neil Howe, an author of many books about generations but this one seems perfect for what you’re talking about: “Millennials in the Workplace: Human Resource Strategies for a New Generation.” (His site is http://lifecourse.com/)

    He recently spoke at the Pew Research Center and talked about how generational differences are essential to progress: the young never challenge the old on their strong suit (Boomers left dam building to the G.I. Generation and took on culture, for example). He also talked about the potentially special role that Millenials could play in public service if they fulfill what he projects to be their archetypal role of “Hero” (filling the shoes of the passing G.I. Generation).

    I’m not completely convinced on all of his points, but he is definitely someone who made me think more deeply about the power of one’s place in a historical moment.

  2. Scott Hielen Says:

    Great post, Doc. The recent 65th Anniversary of D-Day http://www.eucom.mil/dday65/Dday.asp definitely put the spotlight on the Allied military veterans of that era. While not as glamorous or headline-grabbing, the success of that campaign owed just as much to the government and industry workers of the day back on the home front. Certainly much value in knowing how they “got it done”.

    There’s unique wisdom to be captured from every generation, not just one auspiciously named “The Greatest”. You pointed out one of the major differences between then (WWII) and now (Gov2.0): bureaucracy. We probably have some of the kids of the Greatest Generation to thank for the current regulatory environment and the excess of checks and balances that keep today’s administrations and today’s government workers from actually making a plan and innovating. In an effort to protect the public and be good stewards of tax dollars, we’ve created a zero-defect system with so many milestone and review requirements that the innovative effort is outdated on arrival and it discourages pioneers from even trying. No doubt the rules and regs were well-intended, but they probably went beyond their originators’ intent. The Defense acquisition system is a prime example.

    Large corporations get mired under their own rule sets and administrative overhead. They overcome some of that largess by either fostering small units with the venture capitalist or start-up mentality. “No rules! What do we have to lose?” Since Uncle Sam, Inc. can’t “acquire” any start-up governments, we’re forced to look within. Since it will be awhile before U.S. code gets re-written to streamline innovation in government, maybe there’s a way to create some incubators in the organization that have some of the bureaucratic requirements waived until they prove successful (or not).

    “We could have universal health care BUT…” Identify the “buts”, figure out how to get them waived or reduced for a trial period, innovate and produce. We could have universal health care alpha and beta versions. It might not be perfect, but at least we don’t waste time, taxes and lobbying dollars getting nowhere over years and years. The question is, do we want it (or any other ambitious dream) bad enough to make it happen? What threat of catastrophe will make our 3 branches of government move in that direction?

  3. jana gallatin Says:

    We are bi-polar as citizenry when it comes to our government. We want the government to deliver services that we individually require cheaply (read low taxes). On the other hand we want to know that every penny is spent in “appropriate” ways, specifically for those programs with which we disagree, so we bellow for more oversight, resulting in a byzantine set of rules for checks and rechecks that adds negative value.
    Honestly, do we need to spend $20 to ensure that a “welfare mom” doesn’t get $1 more than she is “entitled?” Or the procurement process for DoD – JCIDS; That process chart looks like spaghetti and meatballs! And it costs a bunch, most of which is for people mindlessly wordsmithing and checking off review blocks to make sure the contract contains all the necessary whereas and heretofors.
    We don’t trust each other to do what is best for the country and we don’t trust the government to do what is best for the citizenry.
    And as long as most of us are looking for financial or influence answers to the question, “What’s in it for me?” we will be hard pressed do away with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a weapon that we use against each other, and no one lets their weapons go easily.
    As for entrepreneurship in government. It can be done. Just ignore the bureaucracy and hope that your chain of command is sufficiently mired in inertia that they won’t spend the time or energy to censure you as long as you are accomplishing “good things.” Of course, you expose yourself to huge risk when some citizen decides that you need to be reined in for whatever reason.
    If you want better government, start with yourself. If you work for the government, look to see what real value your job offers the citizens. If all you are doing is telling someone else what form to use or reviewing things for crossed ts, maybe you need to find something that actually contributes. (If you are in contracting, all the specifics in the world on a contract are not going to guarantee a good result. You need trust for that.) If you are faced with bureaucracy stopping you from getting a good result, call “BS” on it. Make people critically look at the result of processes instead of focusing on “improving or streamlining them.” Streamlining a process that results in a useless product just gets us to stupid faster.
    If you are not a government employee, trust that the person that is trying to help you wants to do a good job. Don’t demand more “oversight,” demand visibility into the process and if it’s stupid, call “BS” on it. Why does an application have to go through 7 review steps if the person that is working with the public is the one that knows the most about the situation? Why cannot they be trusted to make a decision?

    I know this is all over the place, and for that I apologize. Sometimes I get passionate. (I am a civil servant and ex-Army…I am not only civil, I am a downright congenial human being (and citizen). AND I do believe that my job is service! More of us exist than you might think.)

    Just sayin’…

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