This fall, a select group of American college and university students around the country will join the State Department. But they won’t be travelling very far.
The so-called “e-interns” will instead work from their dorm rooms and libraries on projects for U.S. consulates and embassies around the globe. They’ll make videos, do research, manage public relations campaigns around specific events, and in other ways help thinly stretched consular staffs engage with the rest of the world. This will all happen online.
The U.S. State Department’s Virtual Student Foreign Service is a fledgling effort at harnessing technology to expand and make American diplomacy more effective. What’s most striking about it, though, isn’t the technology. It’s the simple idea that technology can make a pool of people with a variety of skill sets, from filmmaking to social media, available to help diplomatic missions around the globe tackle new initiatives efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.
And it begs a question. Why should a handful of students get all the fun?
The plain truth is that every day, Canadian government departments are asked to solve the problems of the 21st century with a workforce and managerial structure designed for an earlier era.
A 2009 Statistics Canada analysis showed that six out of every ten federal public servants are in knowledge-based occupational categories, reasonably mirroring the 70 percent of private sector workers who are in creative occupations. Canadian workers have long since abandoned being hewers of wood and drawers of water, yet the stovepipe, hierarchical machinery of our public institutions remains.
With each department filled with clerks, researchers, analysts, frontline workers and managers assigned to a particular file, branch or division, the federal and provincial governments are often an immense honeycomb of silos. Information, knowledge and skills are separated from one another by bureaucratic and impenetrable walls, hindering the flexibility and collaboration that are vital to resolving the problems that confront them.
Think of Canada’s food supply. Any number of organizations – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, not to mention provincial departments of agriculture and health – have an interest in boosting food safety. Each has its own mission, yet each also has experts – in food production, public health and regulatory compliance – who are needed to craft effective measures that could reduce the risk of outbreaks of foodborne illness.
How best to use them? The reflexive answer would be to create a new department or agency or yet another in the panoply of cross-government task forces that seem to sprout like wildflowers every time a cross-disciplinary challenge rears its head.
But as the virtual U.S. Foreign Service suggests, there’s a better way. Think of it as the Canadian “GovLabor Cloud,” a concept devised by Deloitte’s GovLab.
For all the hype attached to the term, “cloud computing” is at heart an online repository of knowledge and skill sets. Email, collaboration, office software suites, data storage, voice communications, photo and video sharing – you can do all of them without having the software sitting on your own computer. Both individuals and corporations have found they can cut costs, boost productivity and quickly scale resources up or down by using cloud services.
A human “cloud” within the federal or provincial governments would operate in the same fashion, making workers available as needed to perform creative, problem-focused work without needing to sit in any particular departmental slot. Cloud workers would be government-wide employees, able to work across organizational boundaries on specific challenges and, just as cloud computing services do, to stay on top of new developments in workplace processes and technologies to get their jobs done better and faster. A Canadian GovCloud would make sure knowledge and skills were quickly available wherever they were needed, when they were needed, and only for as long as they were needed.
Building Canada’s GovCloud would take work and forethought, especially if you give a moment’s thought to the types of people you’d want available on any given complex issue. Confronting childhood obesity? You’d want experts in nutrition, primary education, urban planning, recreation, the food and beverage industries, marketing and a half-dozen other disciplines. Worried about gas pipeline safety? You’d need experts in gas safety, risk analysis, pipeline operations, infrastructure security, inspection and the like.
For them to be most valuable, the rest of the government will need to change. Current departments would need to be hyper-thinned, made up of people focused solely on those departments’ missions. Back-office and clerical support would be provided by shared services. It would make for a leaner structure -but one capable of reacting quickly to new issues and policy directions.
Making the workforce cloud model happen will be controversial, requiring bold leadership from entrepreneurial government executives. Yet in an age of budget cuts, increased fiscal scrutiny, and a desperate desire on the part of Canadians for a government willing and able to meet important challenges head on, it’s clear that old ways of doing business are running out of time. It may take years to transition to the cloud model. The time to start, however, is now.
William Eggers is the director of public sector research at Deloitte and author of numerous books, including If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government. Howard Yeung, a frequent CGE contributor, is a GovLab Fellow and manager at Deloitte public sector consulting.