Government as a low-trust environment

The US government is, deliberately and structurally, a low trust environment. Think about why we have a “system of checks and balances.” We have proudly created a government structure that is self-correcting and that incarnates our distrust of each branch of the government. Why is freedom of the press such an important value to us? Because we all want transparency into the government’s actions – not to celebrate its fine management practices, but to know when it is doing something wrong. Within the government, we have Inspectors General to investigate misbehavior, Ombudsmen to make sure we are serving the public, and a Government Accountability Office. To work in the government is to work in an environment where people are watching to make sure you do the right thing. It is a culture of mistrust.

That sounds horrible, and from the standpoint of classic agile software development thinking, it is unworkable. But take a step back – don’t we sort of like this about the government? “Distrust” has unpleasant connotations, but as a systematic way of setting up a government, there is a lot to be said for it. It is another way of saying that the government is accountable to the people. You could almost say – you might want to hold on to your chairs here, agile thinkers – that mistrust is actually a value in the government context. So where does that leave us if agile thinking wants us to deliver as much value as possible, but believes that agile approaches require trust?

It might sound academic, but I think solving this dilemma is critical to finding ways to bring agile thinking into the federal government. A typical IT project experiences this structural distrust over and over: in the reams of documentation it is required to produce, in the layers of oversight and reviews it must face, and in the constraints imposed on it.

I will argue that even in a low trust environment, agile approaches are still the best way to deliver IT systems. And that certain tools – borrowed primarily from DevOps – actually help us resolve the dilemma. Waterfall approaches fit well with mistrustful environments by holding out the promise of accountability and control – but they just don’t work. So how can we bring agile, lean, team-based processes into an environment that is structurally mistrustful, and realize our goal of a lean bureaucracy?

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One thought on “Government as a low-trust environment

  1. marc

    Mark,

    The only way I’ve seen “trust” work in a low-trust environment was when I helped create an organization (Program Office) at a large federal agency that had as it’s foundation a few basic principles:
    Small Trusting Teams–Even at scale (over 500 FTE between feds and vendors) it was a team of teams and did not behave as a traditional hierarchy. It helped that the genesis was a rag-tag crew of us who had nothing to lose. Only 3 people of the 7 were actually employed at that Agency. The rest of us were outsiders with nothing to lose.
    Ridiculously high Authority, Accountability and Sponsorship–We were held to the highest delivery standard, but got our blockers cleared. It held because we never abused the authority. Had we it would have fallen apart.

    Consistent, frequent delivery of capability–It is amazing how little interest there is from GAO and OIG and Congress when a program is delivering “value”.

    Colocation–We all had to look at each other every day in a stand-up. That does wonders for accountability:)

    Not to say that the culture of mistrust wasn’t pervasive, we just adjusted our tactics and did “just enough” to work through the system. When someone put a blocker we used our authority and every bit of personal charm to do the task with quality and quickly. As an example, we we demonstrated “lean HR” by recruiting them onto the team for a week or two to get that bit of work done. Normally establishing PD’s, doing Job Analysis, writing announcements, etc takes months. It took us weeks because we formed a team of volunteers face to face

    Some of the nuances of trust in the government are affected by: Good or Poor Stewardship, Creative Tension vice Competition (among the 3 branches, between press and government, between bureaucrats and politicals), Colocation (think about when Congress stayed here and stayed together instead of being able to go home frequently), Frequent Regular Deliver vice Failed delivery (could be services, products, policy, legislation). All of these and many more can either nourish trust or destroy it. Remaining committed to the mission and keeping the trusting team construct creates a virtuous cycle of delivery, trust, growth, delivery, trust, growth. The resources can then be allocated to those that deliver.

    At one time trust in government was high. It starts with leaders at all levels, political and otherwise, who take the time to focus on the positive factors that influence/create trust.

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