You are on page 1of 11


Breaking the Failure Cycle

How Collaborative Technologies Can Drive
Transformational Change

By Frank DiGiammarino

Just as managers in the public sector face an unprecedented

array of challenges, they also face major difficulties in tapping
into their most valuable resource: their own organizations. Today
a new set of collaborative technologies allow public managers to
bring together visionary leadership with critical data to make their
organizations as agile as the emerging challenges and
opportunities they face. But making the management and IT
changes necessary to employ these new tools and transform an
organization often meets with strong resistance.

A New Paradigm for Public Governance

The National Academy of Public Administration is looking at new models for

collaboration that are driving the innovations our government needs right now.
In looking at the trends in the over 50 cases on,
the National Academy has observed that doing nothing is becoming less and
less tenable. Action is required to move our government forward – Citizens,
government employees and the problems our nation faces are demanding it.

There are both incremental and transformative activities currently in place

across government. Several of the most innovative solutions have harnessed
technology with a clear business problem to transform the fundamental
delivery or performance of the agency’s service or mission. This is where
government needs to be headed.

We have Bureausclerosis

Our government has bureausclerosis – a hardening of the arteries of


An old American proverb states: “You can’t leap a twenty-foot gap in two ten
foot jumps.” The current organizational culture of federal government has
always emphasized reliable delivery of service over speed and efficiency.
Most agencies are heavily constrained by rigid organizational hierarchies and
stovepipes across organizations, all while pursuing narrowly-tailored

Proprietary and Confidential

Page 2

mandates, undergoing rigorous oversight from multiple directions, and

competing among each other for a fixed – and, increasingly, shrinking – pool
of budgetary and human resources.

The result has been a tangled web of organizational charts and appropriations
accounts that, in many cases, bureaucrats themselves cannot decipher.
Unclear accountability and fragmented processes result in too many points of
contact for customers. Managers often lack any clear sense of how to
incorporate new mandates into existing operations, let alone what delivery of
those services should cost.

Different agencies may face different constraints to varying degrees, but the
overall effect they have almost always takes the same recognizable shape:
ideas, vision, and leadership emanate from the top, but data, experience, and
institutional knowledge accrue at the bottom. A hundred thousand front-line
employees can not provide the singular vision and leadership required to
manage a large bureaucracy, but the experience they bring to bear remains
inaccessible to those who are in positions of leadership. Managers are forced
to dictate change and do their best to filter it downwards.

Is there a Cure for Bureausclerosis?

Meeting the challenges of tomorrow requires closing the gap – not just
between present and future states, but between leaders and employees,
stakeholders, and citizens. It requires closing the gap between the leadership
necessary to provide the vision of transformation, and the on-the-ground
experience that informs successful leadership. It requires a transformation in
the way government views and conducts business - moving leaders out of a
paradigm that forces them to push potentially valuable contributors out of the
process, and instead begin to pull them in. It requires closing the gap
between ideas and data.

For most managers, that’s a tall order because it requires them to go against
the natural preference for the status quo. For this reason, when
transformational change does happen, it’s usually involuntary. It happens
when the incremental adjustments we naturally favor just aren’t enough to
stay ahead of the game, and we are overtaken by events.

Consider the American auto industry’s failure to support innovation advancing

hybrid technology and thus reinforcing America’s dependence on oil and gas.
Similarly the recent collapse of the nation’s banking system stems from the
failure of industry leaders to adjust oversight policies in the face of the sub-
prime mortgage phenomenon. In both cases, key decision makers chose to
respond to developments with incremental change. Today, they’re struggling
to solve the problem because they chose to manage rather than lead.

When this happens to individual organizations, or even entire business

sectors, the effects are usually survivable. Increasingly, though, a disquieting
thought has crept into the minds of managers, into the political campaigns and

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 3

across the public sector: What if this paradigm isn’t good enough anymore?
The federal system that was born in the wake of Roosevelt’s call for “bold,
persistent experimentation” has grown timid over the years and now faces, for
the first time, a host of threats, challenges, and trends that threaten the
viability of the public sector as we know it. American government itself
headed for an overhauling moment. How do we change our course?

The Failure Cycle

In most cases, change today is driven by failure. When operations are

running smoothly, leaders experience great comfort with the organization’s
ability to provide a quality product or service within acceptable timeframes.
Subsequently leadership has high comfort with their mandate and ability to
deliver on their mission. But what happens when the organization begins
failing in its mission? What happens when the demands begin to outstrip the
organization’s resources?

The graphic below outlines a very simplified series of steps that move an
organization from failure to success and if not diligently managed, back into

Step 1: A new problem or challenge arises in your organization. You are

experiencing tremendous organizational pain because you cannot deliver
on your mission and you are uncomfortable with your lack of control over
mission outcomes.

Step 2: When the pain and discomfort outweigh your resistance to

change, you respond to the problem, make progress and see some
impact from your actions. Your environment is now one of high pain
buffered by the belief that the changes you are making will lead to a
resumption of mission and more control over outcomes.

Step 3: Here your actions have paid off and you are now back in control –
you have a higher level of comfort and low pain. You are proud of your
accomplishment, reward the organization, and feel pretty good about your
work. Your organization goes into maintenance mode. You stop seeking
innovative solutions and take comfort in the fact that all is working well.

Inattention to growing problems and innovative solutions lead to the next

failure. The challenge is that your environment will change – things
happen. In fact, the only thing we know for sure these days is that
change is constant. Forces either in or beyond your control will drive you
into the crisis environment of Step 4. You have little time to assess or
react. You find yourself in an environment of high pain with no comfort
and control over your outcomes – squarely back in Step 1.

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 4

High Pain
Limited Control

Response &
Step 2

High Pain New Problem Resolution & Low Pain

Low Control or Challenge Maintenance High Control
Step 1 Step 3

The Game


Step 4

High Pain
No Control

While a simple view, this graphic represents how many government

organizations operate. These organizations are constantly putting themselves
into situations of system failure and expecting amazing eleventh hour actions
that will save the day. Over the past decade, the list seems endless - 9/11,
Katrina, Enron and WorldCom, the Internet Bubble, the energy crisis, the
bridge collapse in Minnesota, and the most recent sub-prime mortgage crisis.
As a nation, we have been striving for the comfort and security of Step 3 while
underestimating the true risk of our growing problems. When our problems
come to light, they are highly visible failures and have deep impact.

Unfortunately the failures of Step 4 create a crisis environment where

immediate action is required but time does not exist to adequately weigh
options and solutions. The result - our responses are not well thought out and
too often we are driven to incremental change to solve the immediate problem
without careful analysis of the long-term transformation that will not just solve
the problem, but will radically move us forward.

Diligence in Step 3 is the key to seeking transformational change. As our

global society speeds up and change becomes more of the norm, leaders
have to constantly seek to identify new problems and challenges. The truly
transformational organization never finds itself in Step 4. Instead they apply
persistent examination of their operations and challenges and proactively
seek the high pain/low comfort environment that will move them from Step 3
to Step 1. They seek to bypass Step 4 and more comfortably exist in Steps 1
and 2. The proactive identification of problems allows leaders and front-line

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 5

employees time to carefully select solutions that meet not just the immediate
challenge but extrapolate to address future challenges as well.

Using Collaboration to Break the Cycle

There are leaders stepping out across government to change the game and
break this cycle. They are forcing both themselves and their organizations to
exist in steps 1 and 2. The following are three examples that illustrate some
innovative models.

Connecting with Ideas

After taking office in 2005, Kip Hawley, the Administrator & Assistant Secretary
of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration, quickly
recognized the need to improve TSA’s relationship with its front-line
employees. The benefits of reaching out to the organization’s 43,000
transportation security officers (TSOs) were obvious; no one in the
organization would be better positioned to evaluate the on-the-ground efficacy
of TSA’s various policies and procedures and offer innovative suggestions.
But Hawley was at a loss for how to tap this massive community in a way that
harnessed their expertise to inform high-level policy decisions and produce
durable institutional change.

After consulting with various experts on his staff, collaborative technology

emerged as a solution. Hawley learned about wikis, collaboratively-edited
web sites that allow multiple users to aggregate their feedback, and edit and
respond to each others’ thoughts and submissions. The best known example
of a wiki may be Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone in the
world can help write or update. The force that makes wikis a game changer –
rather than just a nifty tool – is that as individuals collaborate, the collective
whole grows smarter. There was no reason, Hawley thought, that TSA
couldn’t implement the same model.

In March 2007, Hawley launched TSA IdeaFactory, an internal collaboration

site that provided a place for the TSOs to share important information and
techniques for improving the security of the nation’s airports. The
IdeaFactory, a secure intranet restricted to registered users inside the agency,
became an instant hit. Airport TSOs now share ideas for improving their
workplace environment and strategies for making the traveling public more
secure. As of September 29,2008, there are 6000 regular users with
approximately twenty five to thirty percent of those users are submitting,
rating, and/or commenting on ideas. Since its launch, site users have
generated 6, 596 ideas with 140,262 ratings and 58,468 comments. Out of
this effort fifteen to twenty new ideas a week are put up for review before the
Innovation Council and TSA has implemented thirty initiatives that are a direct
result of ideas on Idea Factory1.

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 6

Why does collaboration work? Simply put, it allows leaders to connect with
innovative thinking without physically upending their organizations in the
process. Instead of reorganizing his agency – a complex bureaucracy – Kip
Hawley used collaborative technology to transcend it. The result was real,
durable organizational change that gains almost automatic buy-in from front-
line employees. With IdeaFactory, ideas don’t come down from the top; they
come up from the bottom. And the search for ideas is constan. There is no
comfort in the norm – the organization is constantly looking for its pain points
and proactively moving into Step 1 to seek out of the box thinking to make the
organization better.

A Networked Approach

In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its final report which focused on,
among other things, a “series of barriers to information sharing that
developed”2 among the 16 separate agencies that make up the United States
Intelligence Community. Confronted with the startling possibility that the
intelligence which could have prevented the attacks of September 11th might
have been wedged into a binder on a dusty shelf in an FBI field office, the
President worked with Congress in 2004 to create the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence (ODNI), a 1,500-person organization charged with
overseeing the Intelligence Community.

ODNI quickly realized that they were staring directly at a classic data/volume
challenge: Advances in technology had allowed them to accumulate data
faster than ever, but their power to analyze the data and connect disparate
dots into meaningful patterns hadn’t caught up. As Dale Meyerrose, the
ODNI’s Chief Information Officer, put it, “Intelligence is about looking for
needles in haystacks, and we can’t just keep putting more hay on the stack.”3

Luckily, even before he knew about collaborative technology, Meyerrose

understood the power of harnessing the experience and wisdom of front-line
employees. So the C.I.A. set up a competition, later taken over by the DNI,
where any employee at any intelligence agency could submit an essay
describing a new idea to improve information sharing, and the best ones
would win a prize. The first essay selected was by Calvin Andrus, chief
technology officer of the Center for Mission Innovation at the C.I.A. In his
essay, “The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence
Community,” Andrus posed a deceptively simple question: How did the
Internet become so useful in helping people find information?” The answer lies
in the boom of self-publishing.

As a result of Andrus’ essay, ODNI’s own wiki, Intellipedia, went live in April
2006.4 An internal intranet with several levels of security – users are granted
access based on their security clearance levels – Intellipedia allows users to
read postings, contribute to the discussion, or add and edit content.
Viewpoints are attributed to the agencies, offices, and individuals participating,
with the hope that a consensus view will emerge. The site gives analysts from
across the Intelligence Community a forum for sharing breaking news,
Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009
Page 7

critiquing each others’ analysis, and letting users sort through volumes of
information and decide, together, what to keep and what to throw away.

Today, the site has over 90,000 users 5and 132,000 articles on various
individuals, places, and situations across all three security levels of the
application. Analysts across government are harnessing collaborative
technology to sort through a stack of hay faster and more efficiently than ever
before – and they’re finding the needles. In testimony presented to Congress
on September 10th, 2007, DNI Admiral Michael McConnell stated that
Intellipedia has “enabled experts from different disciplines to pool their
knowledge, form virtual teams, and quickly make complete intelligence
assessments…The solution does not require special networks or equipment
but has dramatically changed our capability to share information in a timely

Where the IdeaFactory harnessed the power of collaboration to put TSA’s

leaders in touch with its front-line employees, ODNI used it to put front-line
employees across 16 very different agencies in touch with each other. For
decades, presidents and legislators had labored to break down the walls
among various intelligence agencies by restructuring organizational charts
and lines of authority in ways that might make a contortionist blush. Today,
managers across government are realizing that the only way to prepare a
federal bureaucracy to meet emerging challenges is not to transform its
structure – but to transcend it.

TSA and ODNI have harnessed collaborative technology to measurably

improve federal delivery of critical services. Nonetheless, both of these cases
rely on a paradigm that forces leaders to push some of the most important
constituencies – ordinary citizens and key stakeholders – out of the process.

None of Us Is As Smart As All of Us

At the Environmental Protection Agency, they’ve found a way to take

collaboration a step further, reaching out to ordinary citizens. In November
2007, Molly O’Neill, EPA’s Chief Information Officer, announced an effort to
enhance tracking and documenting environmental conditions in the Puget
Sound, an arm of the Pacific Ocean that reaches deep into the northwestern
corner of Washington State – and has profound effects on the quality of life of
millions of residents.

From her years of experience in environmental issues, O’Neill knew

Thousands of scientists and stakeholder groups across the country were
collecting different data, storing it in different systems, and analyzing it in
different ways – but they were all looking at the same environment. With that
challenge in mind, O’Neill launched the Puget Sound Information Challenge,

The Challenge took the form of a symposium where participants were invited
to share the best information resources, tools, ideas, and contacts in their

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 8

arsenal to inform the protection of the Puget Sound. The result was a web
site known informally as the Puget Sound Mashup,7 where users could submit
requests for information, comment on each others’ data sets and
methodologies, share best practices and lessons learned, and use innovative
tools like Google Earth, social bookmarking, RSS feeds, and even YouTube to
pool and analyze their data intelligently. Over the course of 48 hours, the site
received over 175 contributions of ideas, data and applications, and over
18,000 page views. The Puget Sound Information Challenge is one of a
growing number of examples of the federal government successfully enlisting
stakeholders and citizens in tackling a critical issue.

How Can I Self-Medicate My Bureausclerosis?

Transformational change depends on strategy and vision to drive multiple,

concurrent changes, rather than simply piling small adjustments on top of one
another in sequence. Transformation is about declaring a new direction and
boldly moving toward it. It requires the organization to become comfortable in
uncertainty as they adjust to an entirely new paradigm. Most importantly,
transformational change requires leadership from the top, but also
organizational buy-in at all levels.

Examining the success stories and talking with their leaders offers a few clear

1: This Isn’t a “Field of Dreams”

Today, many public leaders see blogs, wikis, and other collaborative
platforms, and feel immense pressure to do…something. But it is still
fundamentally true that people only show up when you give them a reason.
Simply deploying collaborative technologies doesn’t mean that people will use

It is important to note that there needs to be a “safe fail” sandbox for people to
experience and become comfortable with these tools. It is critical to
experiment with them on both a personal and professional level in order to be
comfortable with how they are used and to come up with creative ideas on
how to use them.

Once a leader decides to apply these tools to a achieve results, however,

there are three key success factors that make a collaborative platform or tool
an attractive proposition to potential users: It must solve a clear problem,
target a specific audience, and provide a real value exchange. Lacking any of
these three is usually the difference between experimentation with “cool”
technology, and collaboration that truly adds value.

2: Focus on the Who

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 9

Mass collaboration isn’t a panacea, but it does give leaders an opportunity to

bring data and people together in new ways. Today’s most effective leaders
are focused not on how they can solve a problem, but on who to pull into the
problem-solving process. Leaders like Molly O’Neil at the Environment
Protection Agency and Kip Hawley at the Transportation Security Agency
effectively deployed collaboration in their agencies by realizing that bringing a
wider array of stakeholders into the process wasn’t just a neat idea; it was
also the right thing to do. The technology simply enabled tapping everyone
from employees to stakeholder groups to the citizenry to change the game
and get results.

3: Embrace the Opportunity

Increasingly, it seems like the only thing easier than finding a reason to deploy
collaborative technology is finding a reason not to. In an era that demands
massive change we consistently call on our “inner lawyer” to slow innovation
and empower the status quo.

The very attributes that make collaboration a powerful catalyst for change –
low cost and complexity, widespread availability of data – also make it easy
for normal citizens to bring about extraordinary change. This is a paradox of
collaboration: Any technology that allows government to “go around” its
normal bureaucratic constraints also has the potential to let citizens “go
around” government itself. Inaction by government, in the face of a desire for
change, contributes to public disenchantment with the formal mechanisms of
public governance. Government must understand that mass collaboration
represents not just an exciting opportunity to engage citizens, but also a
responsibility to draw the public into the process and ensure that public
deliberation is fueled by accurate data and realistic expectations about what
government can and cannot achieve.

Even the best public managers must work within a bureaucracy that is
designed to be fine-tuned – not transformed. The paradigm that government
has grown used to is one in which threats and challenges reach across
agencies and sectors, but solutions don’t. The result is a kind of artificial
“ceiling” on how effective government can be – no matter how successful any
individual player is they can only ever win the one game they’re playing.

Public-sector leaders like Kip Hawley, Calvin Andrus, and Molly O’Neill had
played this game before, and they knew the rules had to change. Agencies
like TSA, ODNI, and EPA are adopting a networked approach to public
governance, leveraging collaborative technology to play “3-D chess” – to
implement solutions that reach across barriers and sectors. They are
avoiding system failures and Step 3 by finding innovative ways to tap new
audiences as resources and solicit feedback, transcend rigid hierarchies,
bring vision and leadership together with data and experience, and become as
agile and adaptable as the threats and opportunities they face.

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Page 10

Our government needs as many of these leaders as we can develop. Our

future depends on it.


Dan Munz contributed to the development of this paper.

Proprietary and Confidential February 20, 2009

Interview with Dave Weingart, Transportation Security Administration
9/11 Commission Report, p. 79
Some of these users are due to triple registrations