The discourse about and around corporate America has been largely dominated by two closely related topics: competitiveness and the need for a highly-skilled workforce. The private sector appears to be listening and acting with varying degrees of success.

The same can’t be said for the federal government, which hasn’t changed much since the advent of the Internet and the cell phone. Moreover, most government employees—political and bureaucratic—still tend to think the same way that they always have.

Fog obscures the Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Fog obscures the Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The government mindset, born of less connected times, dictates that the understanding of almost any issue requires breaking the issue down into distinct pieces. This isn’t necessarily a bad practice. It can bring useful clarity to many issues. But, when it is misapplied to complex, interdependent issues, this approach can profoundly distort (read oversimplify) the federal government’s understanding and handling of major issues. This is a growing problem as globalization continues to create more connections.

Take, for example, climate change—a topic that has taken on renewed urgency given the International Energy Agency’s report Monday, which shows a troubling rise in carbon dioxide levels. Climate change incorporates the full gamut of governmental concerns: economics, foreign affairs, foreign and domestic security, energy, technology, health care, education, agriculture and law. But breaking the issue down into its component parts, as the federal government does, is folly. Action in any one of these areas will affect—directly or indirectly, in intended and unintended ways—all of the other areas. That means it’s critical that the broad range of possibilities and consequences be constantly assessed. A failure to do so will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the government to be as effective as it could be when it comes to addressing climate change.

This points to the larger problem. The practice of breaking problems down into independent parts is eroding the federal government’s effectiveness and relevance when it comes to tackling big challenges. These challenges include economic stability, resource availability, migration, terrorism, climate change, organized crime, pandemics, proliferation and cyber-security. All of these challenges demand broad, holistic perspectives, not the narrow, focused viewpoints held today.

So, how does the federal government open itself to a new form of thinking? How does it begin to identify and leverage the connections between issues that are, today, thought of in discrete chunks? In essence, how does the government learn to think more creatively?

The government will need to tackle the same issues—organization and human capital—that corporate America is taking on. First, since thinking often reflects the structures in which it takes place, the government will need to press for the creation of more networked organizations and processes that might enable creativity to thrive. This means creating a flatter organization where the traditional hierarchy no longer exists. Second, through recruitment, training, education, and retention the government will need to value and emphasize creative thinking. This means more than just giving government employees access to new technologies or startup-style workspaces.

Currently, the government’s legacy structures and bureaucratic processes compel the continued slicing of issues into artificial pieces that promote an illusion of simplicity. The current departmental and congressional committee structure is a prime example of this. And the problem compounds on itself, since this practice hurts efforts to recruit, train and retain creative thinkers.

Every organization, government included, must grapple with how to change its thinking for a more complex world. If it fails, the federal government risks not just undermining its own effectiveness, but it could end up consigning itself—and perhaps even the nation as a whole—to irrelevance.

Josh Kerbel is the Chief Analytic Methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.