Distributed government explained

Society has reached a point in the organizational and civic evolutionary cycle where distributed government teams will play an undeniable and critical role in the future of highly effective, empathetic and inclusive public service teams.

As civic leaders wrestle with and seriously address the issues of our times — disasters, pandemics, climate change, health and wellness, economic empowerment — distributed teams is the obvious solution for delivering responsive and resilient government services.

Defining distributed

John O’Duinn, author of Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart, has written the definitive book on why distributed teams are important, and how they can be even more effective than their physically collocated counterparts.

While antiquated terms like ‘telework’ and ‘remote’ continue to be flippantly used, O’Duinn makes clear distinctions between key terms, such as ‘distributed teams,’ ‘virtual teams,’ ‘virtual employee,’ ‘remote work,’ ‘remote employee,’ ‘work from home,’ ‘work from anywhere’ and ‘telework’.

And the subtle differences in each drastically impact our perceptions and assumptions around distributed teams.

How O’Duinn describes ‘distributed’:

All humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.

Why distributed is important

Distributed takes a holistic approach to work and what society values, and areas civic institutions must address if they are to stay relevant.

Here are key reasons why distributed teams are critical, especially for government:

  • Representation: Geographically distributed government workforce more closely matches the needs and concerns of the wider population.
  • Resiliency: Ability to maintain operations regardless of whereabouts, especially if physical locations or regions have been compromised for a prolonged period of time.
  • Recruiting: Talent pool is expanded to include people of diverse backgrounds, ages, abilities and experience.
  • Cost savings: Leasing and maintenance of physical buildings become flexible expenses as agencies shift to partly or fully distributed.
  • Sustainability: Decreased carbon footprint as fewer people are commuting.
  • Work/life balance: Government employees spend less time commuting and invest more energy into their families and communities.
  • Economic empowerment: Financial employment benefits are distributed across multiple local communities rather than centralizing to one.

Increased empathy

In addition to the above reasons, distributed government teams can tap into a stronger sense of empathy — a value inherent in the role of authentic public service.

Once you truly experience distributed culture, you have a stronger understanding of what digital services really mean and how they can make or break the end user experience. If public servants don’t place themselves in digital environments of their own, their ability to have complete empathy for those they serve is lessened.

Distributed digital government service teams have more potential to have empathy for their end users. Immersing yourself into a distributed team is the ultimate digital service user research experience.

We have the means

We now have low-cost, high-reliability tools — G Suite, Slack, Trello, GitHub and Zoom to name just a few — that fully empower asynchronous, instant collaboration. Training on the tools is of course important. Just as important is the training on how to work in and lead distributed teams, fostering a culture of distributed work, and implementing policies to support highly effective distributed teams.

Government is doing this

18F has actively socialized the benefits of distributed teams and how this model has made its teams more effective. Some documentation on their recommended best practices:

Vendors are doing this

Many government contractors and vendors are fully distributed. CivicActions is a 90-person government digital services firm serving federal, state and local governments throughout the United States. There are many others — particularly newer, more innovative government and civic technology vendors — operating in the same way. Being able to work in physically distributed teams allows government agencies to work with the best vendor for that project, not just the best nearby vendor.

Survey says

A 2019 Owl Labs survey highlights the varying benefits of the distributed model.

Here are just a few:

  • Remote workers earn salaries higher than $100,000/year, 2.2x more frequently than on-site workers.
  • Remote workers say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers — 71% of remote workers say they’re happy in their job, and only 55% of on-site workers say they’re happy in their job.
  • 34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely.
  • 42% of remote workers plan to work remotely more frequently than they currently do in the next 5 years, and that more than half of on-site workers want to start working remotely.
  • 55% of remote workers would be likely to look for another job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely. And 61% of remote workers would expect a pay increase if they were no longer allowed to work remotely.
  • 68% of remote workers say they are not concerned working remotely will impact their career progression, while 23% say they fear it would.
  • The top reasons remote workers choose to work remotely include: better work-life balance (91%), increased productivity/better focus (79%), less stress (78%) and avoiding a commute (78%).
  • Remote workers say they work more than 40 hours per week 43% more than on-site workers do. However, on-site workers are also working longer weeks because it’s required of them, while more remote workers are doing so because they enjoy what they do.

Distributed government

For government to authentically deliver meaningful public services of the future, it will need to embrace the inevitable relevance and importance of distributed teams.

If government leaders truly value representation, resiliency, sustainability, work/life balance, hiring the best and brightest, economic empowerment, instilling exponential passion for mission-driven work and the many other possibilities for civic innovation, embracing the distributed mindset is the new requisite of how we will define the next phase of public service.

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