The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal managers love technology but fear government is slow at adopting it

A student at Pacific Middle School in Des Moines, Wash., writes computer code as part of the international Hour of Code project on Dec. 9, 2014. The project seeks to increase interest and education in computer science by exposing students to an hour or more of simple computer programing. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Federal managers embrace digital technology and want their agencies to invest more in it, but they’re concerned that government is too slow to adopt state-of-the art systems and is lagging behind the private sector, a survey out today shows.

The survey of senior civil servants across government by the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International, a Virginia technology consulting firm, comes three years after several high-profile directives from the Obama administration to further federal efforts to use digital technology to serve the public. While a majority of  managers said devices such as smartphones and tablets, mobile apps, online services, video-conferencing and other systems have improved their productivity and helped them serve more Americans, a slim majority said they doubt that their agency is keeping pace with the private sector.

NAPA and ICF teamed up to take managers’ temperature because they believe digital technology had the potential to produce big results in government, but heard concerns from many in and around government that agencies cannot keep up with the rapid changes in the digital space, organizers said. They are releasing the survey Tuesday morning at the University Club in Washington.

“The big surprise for me was that acceptance of digital technology was nearly universal, regardless of age,” said Jeffrey Neal, an ICF senior vice president and former human capital chief at the Department of Homeland Security who served on a panel that oversaw the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study.

“That is a big change from just a few years ago, when some managers bragged that they didn’t have a computer on their desk,” Neal said.

About 10,000 civil servants were surveyed, primarily those at the GS-13 level and up, with a 5.7 percent response rate. Federal leaders are “digital workers” who recognize the value of technology, believe it makes them more productive, their agencies more effective and helps them serve the public, the survey found, not surprisingly.

But just 15 percent said their agency is making new technology available to their employees at the same pace as the private sector. About two-thirds do not know whether their agency has a documented digital strategy, despite numerous presidential orders to make this a priority.

The managers were evenly split, roughly, on whether technology has helped or burdened their so-called work/life balance, without about a third praising the flexibility they have to answer e-mails quickly even after work hours, a third feeling that they’re now tethered to the office at all times and a third saying they’re neutral.

About three-quarters of the managers surveyed say they’re adequately trained for a digital world, but only 36 percent said their employees have the same level of preparation.

And when asked for their views on whether the government’s often-cumbersome acquisition process is enabling agencies to buy digital products they need when they need them, the vast majority percent said the process is too slow and burdened with of government requirements.