Taking the Civil out of Civil Service

This is an assignment for a class I’m taking about challenges around government procurement of technology, such as the failure of Healthcare.gov. The prompt is to write about what we learned from a guest speaker, Bryan Sivak.

In our class on Monday, we heard from Bryan Sivak, the former Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He was involved in the roll out of healthcare.gov, and he was apparently one of the few in leadership positions who saw — and was willing to say — that the project was in trouble before launch.

I want to draw on a particular moment that Bryan mentioned. He was weighing whether to intervene in the midst of a 40-person-full conference room. People involved in the project were updating the secretary of HHS on the website’s status, and everyone indicated the project was going well. Bryan says he remembers looking around the room, realizing that he had an opportunity to say something then — that things were not going well. He says he chose not to say anything, instead opting for a time when he could deliver the message more tactfully. (Which apparently either never transpired, or didn’t have its intended effect.) He also acknowledged in class that he wasn’t sure if this was the right choice, and that he is not sure if he would have done things differently given another chance.

I am someone who believes that artful delivery of messages is essential, and I recognize that message intended often diverges from message received. I also recognize many other dynamics that might make a one-on-one delivery more successful, such as likelihood of defensiveness that could be higher in a room full of 40 people. At the same time, I believe this example hints at a deeper problem in government: too much civility.

Overall, I can see that there are many instances in government where people are too cautious, too civil, and too polite. I expect this exists in other bureaucracies as well, though maybe in a different way. Business does have more of a reputation for harshness.

A friend told me about a project he was working on in a government context. He had tried to get an important stakeholder’s approval over email multiple times, to no success. In one version of bureaucracy, the civil and polite version, my friend would have shrugged his shoulders and said “oh well, I guess we need to wait longer.” Instead, he went to the person’s office and stood outside the door, waiting for a chance to ask his question. This might have been perceived as aggressive or impolite. But it was also effective in getting the approval he needed.

Finding out the right level of conflict or heat is essential. It also depends on the context. There are certainly situations where turning up the heat can have a negative effect. We saw a cautionary tale in this, where someone revoked Bryan’s access to the healthcare.gov work on GitHub. (Though I don’t know how he responded to that. I could make the case that he should have created even more of a disturbance then, to indicate that this was an inappropriate or inadvisable move. But that is beside the point.)

This connects to an idea from the work of Ronald Heifetz, a professor at the Kennedy School. He teaches about the importance of creating conflict (or ‘raising ‘levels of disequilibrium’ in his language). Crucially, he warns that trust and other bonds are essential in order to absorb increased levels of conflict. While I can’t say if the bonds were present in Bryan’s case, to prevent an unproductive blow up, I would say that too often in the public sector, we opt for peace, harmony, and politeness, instead of creating productive conflict.