by David G. Cassidy, TCG Vice President
America’s needs are organized by function. The country is divided into concerns about national security, the environment, nutrition, commerce, transportation, and many other categories. Americans drive on roads, or buy goods and services, or consume food, or care for their neighbors, and it is inappropriate to consider any of these areas as interconnected. There is no ‘and’, only ‘or’.
If this perspective sounds strange, that’s because it flies in the face of empirical reality. National security, public health, the environment, transportation and other areas are organically connected, and actions by private citizens, businesses, and government officials in one area inevitably affects the others. However, federal agencies are still organized as if each area was discrete; silos of processes, data, and objectives. To anyone familiar with the machine of government, discussions about silos aren’t breaking news but, as was recently explored at the 2020 ACT IAC Shared Services Summit, the shared services model can bring government closer to the reality of Americans. Through shared services, agencies may break down these silos, even if implementation has been challenging over the last two decades or so.
The Summit, co-hosted with the Shared Services Leadership Council, provided another valuable window into the progress of shared services across the federal government. It pointed out that federal agencies have common needs and goals. Much of the discussion, involving federal and industry executives, concerned how agencies could or should share capabilities. Some agencies are making progress in sharing their solutions to these needs, especially in back office functions, supported by the Quality Service Management Offices (QSMOs) orchestrated by GSA and OMB. But in terms of concrete, mission-focused activities, agencies continue to operate—for the most part—as silos of processes, data, and objectives.
One speaker from the Summit, Sonal Shah, the Executive Director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, pointed out the opportunity that lies beneath the present-day accepted status quo of silos. Ms. Shah noted that the government of the future must be transformed to embrace a people-centered focus. At the core of that transformation will be cross-disciplinary programs that demand agencies collapse the walls between themselves, and enable the sharing of people, data, and knowledge across government.
This challenges a foundational organizational principle of the federal government: shoving functions and concerns into discrete departments, and sub-agencies of those departments, to aid appropriate focus and funding. This principle is logical, and has served America well for decades. And yet, as our attention more clearly turns to the “customer experience”, and acknowledging that people have constantly evolving, inconveniently uncategorizable integrations of impulses and needs and motivations, the government must be prepared to change. But how?
Nature may give us a convenient analogy. Trees are the largest and most important parts of forests and jungles. The forest grows around them and because of them. Animals take shelter under them, nest on them, scurry between them, and feed off their fruit. Trees are the forest. Until recently, we thought they were independent points, disconnected from each other, and acting largely alone. Today we know this is false: across the forest, on and under the ground, out of sight, the trees are talking. They use an “internet of fungus”, as the BBC puts it, to communicate, to warn of predators and bad weather, to look after their saplings, and exchange nutrients. Through the connections between them, the trees grow stronger, help the forest thrive, and ensure the vitality of the whole ecosystem for its inhabitants.
Our government is a forest of departments and agencies, each of which can seem disconnected from the others, but they are not. Instead, through organizational connections (people, systems, data, mission), they rely on each other—but too often invisibly, imperceptibly. For the government to better serve every individual American we must make these connections explicit and clear, and build them intentionally so that the focus stays on people and not on a function or concern of the moment.
Shared services are becoming those vital, underground connections between agencies. To transform government for the next generation, and to better serve the messy, integrated missions that only government can achieve for Americans, agencies must share pathways, and processes, and data, and people. Services like MAX.gov make such collaborations possible; Integrity.gov assures transparency in leadership; BFEM.gov makes budgeting responsive to the country; and NITRC.org accelerates research between institutions.
Investing in silos of mission is the government of post-war America. The government of the 21st century requires integration, collaboration, and focus on Americans, and the best way to achieve those goals is to share services.