Want to reform government? Start with the basics.

Stan Soloway, former DOD executive and leader of the Professional Services Council, offers some simple advice to anyone looking to reform how the government operates: It's not about changing laws; it's about collaboration and culture.

The email was most unexpected. In the midst of what had been a series of substantive discussions with a Defense Department command about the potential application of a new capability that might help address one of the command’s most pressing concerns, a command attorney effectively directed that the conversations cease. Because no “requirement” exists for the capability being discussed, he said, the conversations had to end.

Of course there is no “requirement” in place; they had only recently become aware of the technology. Our conversations were about whether and how it might be applicable. In other words, one can’t have a requirement for something one doesn’t even know about.

And let’s not even get started on why an attorney even stepped in. One would think the relevant program office could decide when and if their time was being wasted.

As I’ve relayed this story to friends and colleagues in both government and industry, it became clear that it is far from uncommon.

More than 20 years after the passage of acquisition reforms that, among other things, were designed to improve the government’s access to and communications with the private sector, and a half dozen years since the Office of Management and Budget issued its “Mythbusters” memo that was designed to make clear the importance of open communications, the problem remains all too present.

That is not to say there are no good examples of agencies and components swimming against the tide. There most certainly are. The Special Operations Command has created SofWerx, which invites companies of all sizes to demonstrate their capabilities and explore with the command possible applications. SOCOM acquisition executive Jim Geurts says his hope is that SofWerx will become a kind of “mosh pit” of ideas.

And then there is the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, innovation labs in a range of agencies including Homeland Security, HHS and USAID. Beyond that, there have been more than 500 procurement contests and challenges, which by design invite any interested party to propose a solution to an identified problem.

For each of these activities, communications and collaboration are a core operating principle. But the reach of each also remains quite limited and each operates, to one extent or another, outside of the traditional acquisition process.

As the Trump Administration launches its new Office of American Innovation, focused on bringing smart business acumen to government, these examples also provide something of a framework from which to start.

First, whether acquisition is high on their target list or not today, it needs to be. After all, it is a critical engine upon which the government runs. And yes, there are a number of regulatory barriers that need to be eliminated to make that process work as it should.

But the principal, and ultimately most impactful, evolution that needs to take place has little to do with law and everything to do with culture and people.

In the main, as the generally poor quality of cross-sector communications and collaboration suggests, the workforce entering government today is being trained and developed in much the same way as multiple generations before them.

That is not true in the business world.

Changing that paradigm in government requires that the workforce be given the tools, the training and the support to both understand and incorporate smart business concepts in the execution of their work. It requires that the workforce understand, far more than most do now, how businesses identify, manage and mitigate risk.

And it requires that they recognize that communications can be both appropriately limited and significantly more open than they might think.

Simply put, while the government is not a business, there are a wide array of best business practices from which the government would greatly benefit. And none is more important than the degree to which successful businesses have adapted and changed their approach to people and collaboration.

Every day I see examples where clients are engaged with their commercial customers at levels and depths that are exceptionally rare in the government arena.

As some have suggested, most of the business world has moved from the information age to the collaboration age. It’s past time for the government to embrace that shift as well. Finding new ways to make that happen would be a terrific first step to really changing and moving the government forward.

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