How to Learn New Things as an Adult

Glasses and Books

From GovExec:

Quick, what’s the capital of Australia? No Googling! (And no points if you’re Australian—that means the information is more meaningful to you, which means you’re more likely to know it). Did you get it? Or are you sure you learned it at some point, but forgot right around the time that you forgot how the Krebs cycle works? In his new book, Learn Better, author and education researcher Ulrich Boser digs into the neuroscience of learning and shows why it’s so hard to remember facts like that one. Boser explains why some of the most common ways we try to memorize information are actually totally ineffective, and he reveals what to do instead.

Because we’re all getting dumber in the age of Google, I interviewed Boser recently about what people can do to boost their memories and skill sets, even if they’re long past flash-card age. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: What does it mean to learn something? Is it to memorize something? How do you know when you’ve learned something?

Ulrich Boser: Really what we want to do is to be able to think in that way, so that it shifts our reasoning abilities. If we want to learn to learn to become a car mechanic, you want to learn the reasoning abilities of a car mechanic. My favorite example of what it means to be expert, are the Car Talk guys. Because it’s such a weird thing, people call them and they have a car problem, but the Car Talk guys can’t actually see the car. Someone will call and be like, “I have this issue with my Buick, and it makes this weird noise,” and they’re able to solve the issue.

They’re thinking about their own Buicks, their own car problems, to help you solve your car problems. You want to learn the systems, or the analogies, of the relationships between things in a certain field, and how they interact with each other. Then ultimately you gain that knowledge so that you can shift your own thinking, so when you see a new problem you’re better able to solve it.

Khazan: You mentioned things that don’t work, like highlighting a lot, or skimming your notes before a meeting. Why don’t those work?

Boser: Re-reading and highlighting are particularly ineffective. They’re just passive, and you are just kind of skimming that material. It makes you feel better. You feel comfortable with the material, but you don’t really know the material. Doing things that are a little bit more difficult, that require you to really make connections, is a better way to learn. [You might] explain things to yourself, [or] simply quiz yourself. If you’re preparing for a meeting, you’d be much better off just putting the material away and just asking yourself questions. It gives you a false sense of security, that kind of re-reading.

Khazan: Why is teaching other people such an effective learning strategy?

Boser: It’s not that different from explaining ideas to yourself. Self-explaining has a lot of evidence. You’re explaining why things might be interconnected, and why they matter, and those meaningful distinctions between the two of them. The other thing that’s particularly helpful about teaching other people is that you have to think about what is confusing about something, and how you’d explain that in a simpler way, and so that makes you shift the way that you’re thinking about a certain topic.

Khazan: You mentioned that learning is, by necessity, really difficult. Why does it have to be so uncomfortable?

Boser: I think there’s so much stuff out there now that’s like, “Learning’s supposed to be easy, learning’s supposed to be fun!”

If I ask you, what’s the capital of Australia? Do you know what it is?

Khazan: [Breaks into a cold sweat.] Is it Sydney? I don’t know. It’s probably not.

Boser: No, it’s not Sydney. Another guess?

Khazan: Melbourne?

Boser: Nope. One more.

Khazan: Oh my God, I can’t believe I don’t know this. What’s another … Brisbane? I have no idea, I’m so sorry.

Boser: Yeah, it’s Canberra.

Khazan: What?

Boser: Yeah!

Khazan: Oh my God.

Boser: I had this experience with a researcher. I was in your spot, where I was like, “I’m so embarrassed by this. I should know, this is a major country.” The difficulty of that is going to help you remember it. I’m not going to promise you that you are going to remember the capital of Australia 10 years from now, but it’s now a much more salient fact. It’s something that’s a little bit more meaningful to you.

Both of us probably, at one time in the world, had this fact come across us, but it wasn’t meaningful, it certainly wasn’t an embarrassing situation. In my experience it was a source being like, “Do you know this?” I’m trying to be like, “I went to a fancy school, I should know this information.” It became salient to me. Part of the reason that learning’s supposed to be hard, or a little bit difficult, is it makes memory work a little bit more.

The other reason that learning should be difficult is that, when we’re a little bit out of our comfort zone, we are a little bit more challenged, and that helps us develop skills. We see this a lot in games. Part of the attraction of even a shoot-em-up game is that it’s always getting a little bit more difficult, and that way it’s building on our skill.

Khazan: What’s the most effective type of feedback that you could be getting in order to learn better?

Boser: What is helpful is that [the feedback] comes close to when you perform the task, and that it requires you to generate an answer. You don’t necessarily want to simply give people the answer, because then they haven’t really made that information meaningful to themselves. By forcing you to make these wrong guesses [about Australia], when you heard the actual answer, it made it more meaningful to you.

Khazan: Why is it helpful to distribute learning over time?

Boser: I find this one really fascinating. The basic thing is, we forget, and we forget at a very regular rate. People underestimate how much they forget, and people who are able to revisit their learning at a regular rate end up learning a lot more. There’s some good software that does that. Anki is one, and they have, I think, a really nice model, which is, you’re learning at your rate of forgetting. If we know that you’re going to forget details like the capital of France in three months, you would revisit that material at that particular point in time. What’s surprising about it is, this isn’t new. This is stuff that dates back to the 19th century, but we really just don’t use it in schools or in colleges, even though we know that people forget a lot, and they forget at this very regular rate.

Khazan: I was really interested to read about Bill Gates’ Think Week, where he reads all those white papers in a secluded cottage. Why does he do that in that way, and what can other people learn from that?

Boser: He just sort of squares away and has these moments of quiet in order to develop new skills. I think we really underestimate the role that deliberation and reflection plays in learning. To a degree we know it, this is why you think of things in the shower or right before you go to bed. You have these moments where your brain is thinking through the day, making connections, and what’s important, I think, for people who are trying to learn more effectively, is to make organized time for that. We’ve seen some schools have students do more reflections on their learning. There’s one or two studies that have even found that reflection can be more effective than practice itself.

Khazan: How can I get better at remembering peoples’ names?

Boser: One thing that helps with memory is if they’re emotional. You will not forget the name of the person that you gave your first kiss to. I don’t think this is, of course, a very practical solution to this problem.

The other thing that you can do is try and hang that information on other information. Say you want to remember the names of your boss’s daughters, you can see if you can wrap that information into other information that you already know. If you like the Knicks, and his daughters are named Kelly and Neely you can be like, “Oh, the first two letters of the New York Knicks.” That’s another way of making that information more meaningful to you.


Project Management for the Rest of Us

PM Article.jpg

For many individuals thrust or drafted into the role of initiative or project leader without a formal background in project management, expect a steep learning curve and bumpy ride.

In spite of the popularity of project management training and the growth in the number of certified professionals, most projects in organizations are led by functional or technical experts tapped to pull a team together and make the magic happen. The magic, in this case, is successfully completing the initiative on time, under budget and at the right level of quality.

Experienced project managers everywhere are smiling externally while secretly writing your project obituary in their minds. Yes, the road ahead is rocky. In this article, I frame the challenges and offer some getting started ideas and resources.

Understanding 5 Big Challenges

While some might suggest that I am cynical starting out by describing barriers and headaches, I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic. Forewarned is forearmed. And we’ll offer solutions to each of these obstacles in subsequent posts.

1. The words, “I want you to lead this project” are the beginning of a quest for success that may at times feel like Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece of mythology.

You are right to be excited about the opportunity—it is a vote of confidence in you and your abilities and a fantastic opportunity to show your firm’s managers what you are capable of doing with a big initiative. And then, you should be scared. Or at least a little nervous about the realities of making this work.

The early steps you take in establishing a strong foundation for your project, including crystallizing the scope of the work; assessing the needs/issues/obstacles of the people touched by the project (stakeholders) and getting started properly with your project team and sponsor are critical. You get one chance to start this out properly. My advice is to secure a great resource to give you some context for your work and consume it quickly. My recommendation is the non-text I use in teaching my MBA courses in project management: “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” by Eric Verzuh, 5th edition. It grows larger with each edition; however, Verzuh’s great content is distilled for mere mortals operating without project management experience and certification.

2. Your success is dependent upon a group of people who are already overworked and overstressed. You know that excitement you have for this new project? No one else feels the same way. Your new team members may very well groan out loud when they learn they’ve been assigned to your project team. For some, it may well be the second or third project team they’ve recently been “invited” to join.

You will be competing for minds, hearts and time with all of the other priorities your new team members are struggling to navigate. Success is 99.9 percent about your ability to form a productive team out of a group of frazzled, reluctant contributors. We will spend a great deal of time on the topic of developing and leading a team. I wrote: “Leadership Caffeine for the Project Manager—and anyone else responsible for leading teams, groups, or committees,” just for this purpose.

3. Your biggest ally is your executive sponsor—if you have one. And in cases where your organization offers this valuable resources, know that your executive sponsor likely has little real understanding of what this role is supposed to do. And let’s not discount the fact that you don’t have any experience in working with and managing executive sponsors.

If you don’t have an executive sponsor, you need to get one. If you have one, you need to quickly define roles, accountabilities, communication protocol and identify the initial steps the sponsor can take to improve your odds of surviving the first month. Run, don’t walk to my podcast (with transcript): How to Survive and Thrive with Your Executive Sponsor.

4. Your hastily assembled project team will want to jump into the work within the first 20-minutes of your first team meeting. After all, everyone is busy, and this is just another item on their list.

Measure twice, cut once. Part of the foundation for project success is in the upfront project planning and team development process. You and the team have some work to do before you jump into the detailed work. It’s time to work on scope, stakeholders and work definition, who’s going to do what and how the work will be coordinated.

5. Your skills as a diplomat will be severely tested. The people project managers reference as stakeholders—anyone impacted by your initiative—can be some of your biggest supporters and fiercest adversaries. Others will be passive obstacles. You will need to move beyond your noble view to your initiative and actively engage friend and foe alike. Skip this step, and you will die the project death of 1,000 slights.

Yes, this is the dirty sounding issue of power and politics in the world of projects. You have little choice but to enter and play. The trick is learning to play while not compromising your principles.

These are just a few of the challenges you will encounter, but get these right at the start of your initiative and your odds of success rise dramatically. And don’t let all of the talk of potential doom around every corner dampen your enthusiasm for this work. Even your project manager friends understand this work—while incredibly challenging—is genuinely exhilarating.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

Original article link:

Solving Problems and Improving Performance through Data Analytics


From GovExec:

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, Robert King was working in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Chief Readiness Support Office. During and after the storm, King and his office had to assess the damage to their assets across a wide urban geography that was experiencing a tumultuous natural disaster. This made taking stock of resources difficult, to say the least.

“There was a lot of calling,” he explained in a recent Viewcast with Grant Thornton Public Sector and federal analytics experts.

Lately, DHS has focused on consolidating data from disparate source systems within the organization, making it easier to provide integrated snapshots of information across the enterprise, especially at times when the information’s needed most, King said.

U.S. Government Accountability Office Director Vijay D’Souza also noticed the benefits of uniting datasets in a very basic but informative way when GAO assessed the federal government’s risk to earthquakes by merging FEMA hazard maps, federal property data from the General Services Administration, and workforce data from the Office of Personnel Management.

“This was static, but what if it was updated?” he mused.

Sharing the “what if?” attitude was Dominic Sales, Deputy Associate Administrator at GSA. Sales said that there were “1,000 flowers blooming around the agency” in terms of analytics and that he’s especially hopeful about the growth of predictive capabilities, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Though he acknowledges growth will be incremental, Sales is confident in the future.

“We are limited by our own imagination at this point,” he said.

But perhaps the magnitude of living up to one’s imagination—or just the idea of data preparation—feels intimidating. Shiva Verma, Principal and Decision Analytics Lead at Grant Thornton Public Sector, said that worrying about errors in data is a normal concern, especially considering the amount of data that organizations like DHS, GAO and GSA have to comb through and organize in order to provide reliable analytical models. But it doesn’t mean agencies have to stand still.

Data hygiene is important but shouldn’t unreasonably limit you, Verma said. Too often leaders are caught up in having completely perfect datasets.

“You can never have perfect data,” Verma said. And waiting for that “perfect data” comes at a cost.

The cost is inaction. The best move for an agency with data to use and problems to solve is to connect with data scientists who can help them move forward.

When setting up models, Varma said he has found success with a “center of excellence” approach, through which agencies build certain tools on a central basis with the enterprise in mind. When complete, those solutions are released for consumption while the center for excellence works on the “next big thing.”

That way, “there’s somebody always thinking about what’s next,” Verma said. “At the same time, you’re not getting clogged answering day-to-day questions.”

At GAO, D’Souza has had a chance to observe analytics at varying levels of maturity. He and his team have done everything from assess the usability of raw data in an agency to evaluate sophisticated analytic models generated in-house.

Of the adoption process, D’Souza said he believes that it relies on getting employees to constantly turn to analytics as a possible solution when they encounter an issue.

“The idea is not to make everybody in the agency a data analytics expert but to get people to think, hey, maybe I can use data analytics to solve a problem,” D’Souza said.

Since dealing with the chaotic Sandy situation and its aftermath, King said he’s seen an uptick in DHS’s analytic capabilities, which he believes will bode well for similarly stressful, decision-dependent scenarios in the future.

“Analytics changes the narrative,” he said. “Instead of asking for info, we’re immediately assessing the information.”

And those assessments will help leaders make more informed decisions throughout their organizations, Verma said.

“That’s when things get really interesting,” he said. “You start getting a return on your investment in all the data you’ve collected, the investment you’ve made in people and the time you’ve spent creating this framework.”

For more information about decision analytics in the federal government, watch the full Viewcast here.

This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff of Government Executive was not involved in its preparation.

Link to article:

Why Big Data is a Big Deal for Government Leaders



Professor Alfred Ho, at the University of Kansas, recently surveyed 65 mid-size and large cities to learn what is going on, on the frontline, with the use of big data. He found that it has made it possible to “change the time span of a decision-making cycle by allowing real-time analysis of data to instantly inform decision-making.” This decision-making occurs in areas as diverse as program management, strategic planning, budgeting, performance reporting, and citizen engagement.

So just what is big data?  According to Ho: “Big data refers to the use of a massive amount of data to conduct analyses so that the data patterns and relationships can be used for classification, clustering, anomaly detection, prediction and other needs in decision making.”  Information sources increasingly include mobile devices, digital cameras, RFID tags, and embedded sensors.

Ho says that while the sources are important, the key is how these data are collected, organized, analyzed and used. He outlines a two-part framework detailing both the data cycle and the decision-making cycle. He writes: “The framework for big data initiatives challenges the departmental silos of data ownership and processing so that a more integrated and holistic perspective is used to gain new insights.” In addition: “There should be two-way communication between the data cycle and the decision-making cycle.” This helps ensure that policymakers’ priorities inform the priorities of the data and analytics team.

Natural Repositories of Data

Cities are already repositories of rich amounts of data that can be potentially integrated and analyzed for policy and program management purposes. These include data from public safety, education, health and social services, environment and energy, culture and recreation, and community and business development. This includes both structured data (e.g., financial and tax transactions) and unstructured data (e.g., recorded sounds from gun shots, videos of pedestrian movement patterns, and social media data that assess citizen sentiments during an emergency situation). Based on these repositories, Ho notes: “One of the fundamental building blocks of a big data system in local government is the organization’s ability to collect and integrate many forms of data from multiple sources.”

Ho says that “user patterns can provide useful information about what services the public wants most, who wants the services, and where and when those services are used or needed.” He found that a number of local governments are using website traffic data to identify public priorities and concerns. Albuquerque, Dallas and Nashville examine patterns of how citizens use municipal websites and then use the analyses to inform departments about which services are most popular. Other cities, such as Kansas City, puts these kinds of results on their public website so citizens can also see use patterns.

Cities have an affinity for mobile phone users. For example, Boston residents use a phone app to measure road quality and can send real-time data to the city about needs for specific street fixes and to plan longer-term investments. And New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities have mobile apps that allow users to check the schedules of subway trains and buses.  Detroit has an app that allows users to report maintenance issues for water main breaks, potholes, damaged street signs, etc.

“Among the 65 cities examined in this report,” Ho writes, “49 have some form of data analytics initiatives or projects, 30 have established a multi-departmental team structure to do strategic planning for these data initiatives, and 28 have worked with Code for America to launch some pilot analytics programs.”

He found that 75 percent of cities in the survey reported having some form of initiative around the use of data analytics. Most were led by the cities’ IT departments, but in some cities, their initiatives were led out of the mayor’s office or via existing performance management units. Almost a quarter of the 65 cities had designated chief data officers to lead their initiatives. More than half of the cities with active initiatives had established multi-departmental coordinating committees. Interestingly, more than half of the cities with active initiatives also partnered with Code for America to jumpstart their initiatives.

How Cities Are Using Big Data in Decision-Making

In the course of his research, Ho identified a series of cases where cities told him they were using big data in making operational decisions:

  • Chicago developed partnerships with universities, non-profits, foundations, state and federal agencies, and other local governments. “It has used analytics to examine citizen complaints from its 311 center and various services at the neighborhood level . . . It has also deployed predictive analytics to analyze resident complaints of rodent problems over 12 years, and it found that rodent problems are significantly related to trash overflow and cases of food poisoning in restaurants. This prompted the city in 2015 to deploy special sanitation teams more strategically and cost- effectively.”
  • Kansas City “has partnered with different university researchers to analyze crime data, nuisance complaint data, quarterly resident survey data, and census population and housing data.” This has helped local officials “understand how local resident perceptions of public safety and quality of life are related to service outcomes” and other city initiatives. These insights, in turn, help improve the planning and delivery of city services.
  • Los Angeles is a proponent of CompStat, a data-intensive crime-tracking program first pioneered in New York City. It has since adapted the “Stat” model to apply the use of big data in other initiatives, such as its “Clean Streets Initiative,” which uses multiple sources of data to develop a “street-by-street cleanliness assessment system.” These data are used to more effectively deploy resources by the city’s Bureau of Sanitation.

Based on these and other cases, Ho observes that most cities’ analytics initiatives are organized on a project by project basis. One way cities first engaged in the use of analytics was by tapping into issues that affect quality of life in a city, such as illegal dumping, abandoned houses, potholes. The key was that, while these were specific issues, many required multi-departmental collaborations to address them effectively.

Developing a Larger Vision

Ho concludes that: “Big Data initiatives provide a new platform for policymakers, key stakeholders, and individual citizens to use data to understand these problems more holistically.” He says that these data can lead to dialogs that cut across school district, city, county, business, nonprofit sector boundaries. But, in the longer term, he sees that: “Cities need to develop a larger vision of Big Data and see data analytics as part of a smart city movement, not just as data management and statistical programming.” To this end, his report offers 10 recommendations to city political and career leaders based on the promising practices that he observed during his survey and interviews. These recommendations can help those interested in launching big data initiatives as well as help those with existing initiatives to create that broader vision that Ho offers.

7 Values Transforming Today’s Workplace

people-woman-coffee-meeting-large - from - workplace

From Dannielle Blumenthal, Government Executive:

Empowerment versus authority: The individual and the small team make decisions rather than having decisions dictated to them from on high.

Disclosure versus concealment: Telling what’s going on, the earlier the better, leads to forgiveness whereas hiding the truth is unforgivable. The cover-up is worse than the crime.

Frailty versus bluster: People are respected for admitting their faults, and projects are similarly honored as bold attempts even if they do not fully succeed. Those who brag, but have little or nothing to show for it, are quickly outed and mocked.

Insight versus information: The numbers themselves no longer tell the story. People who understand the numbers and can offer useful insight based on studying them in context are prized.

Truth versus loyalty: The public today simply wants to know the truth. Whereas in the past, keeping secrets out of loyalty to the organization was a mark of pride (you would “throw somebody under the bus” so that they could “take one for the team”). Today, this would be considered disgusting.

Advancing a cause versus promoting yourself: In the recent past, it was fashionable to use work as a platform for Brand Me. Today, employees and customers alike expect organizations to be giving something back. Meaning is a primary value; selfishness is not.

Sharing versus hoarding: The notion of a sharing economy extends to workplace spaces, assignments, and distribution of wealth associated with project success. Put simply, people expect to co-work and receive a share of the profits, and they enjoy being part of this kibbutz-like collaborative effort. On the other hand, holding all the money back for oneself, or all the credit, or all the power, is loathsome, and people will take great pains to distance themselves from such a person.

To read the full article, visit:


3 Steps to Inspire Your Team Without Paying Them (Or Without Paying Them More)

Inspire Team ArticleFrom

As a leader of more than a dozen volunteer organizations and a founder of three not-for-profit organizations, I have extensive experience in trying to motivate people who are extremely talented but aren’t financially reimbursed for their time. In addition, as a supervisor in government work, I know the challenges of inspiring employees who are older and more experienced, or younger and may not feel that they have the skills or abilities to tackle a new responsibility.

This year, I’ve written about reward programs to incentivize the performance you want repeated, and I’ve covered using authentic compliments to build closer relationships with your team. But what about when you simply need to get a job done today? You don’t have time to create an employee recognition program or build that relationship with an employee whose nose you need on the metaphorical grindstone. The job needs to be done now and you may have to work with limited resources who are constrained by other work obligations. How can you do it?

First: Perform A “Sanity Check”

Before you step out of your office, perform a quick “sanity check” on the plan you want to put into action. I always recommend using S.M.A.R.T. goals, which helps to ensure that you’re giving someone a task they can accomplish. S.M.A.R.T. is a classic business acronym which stands for:

– Specific: The goal must be detailed and focused, not vague or too broad.
– Measurable: The goal must have targets that can identify under performance and over performance.
– Attainable/Achievable: The goal must be able to be accomplished with the time, budget and resources available.
– Relevant (Some use Realistic): The goal must meet the mission of the organization.
– Timely: The goal must have a deadline for completion.

When you perform this quick analysis, you can be confident that you have created a goal worth pursuing, and that will help you in the next phase.

Next, Get “I’ve Had Way Too Much Coffee!” Enthusiastic

Remember, at this point, your goal is exactly that; yours. You need to build enthusiasm and support for this solo mission to become a team effort, and this starts from within. Make sure you are aware and confident of the importance of this project to the agency, and that will be conveyed when you begin promoting it to your team. After all, how many times have you had to watch your manager try to push senior leadership’s “mission statement” on you? You can tell if they believe in it or if they’re just toeing the company line because they have to. You must be convinced that this is a mission-critical task that will make or break the organization. Make sure you communicate this with all of the answers you developed in making your goal S.M.A.R.T., so the team member knows exactly what is expected and when it is due.

Finally, Follow-up With Your Full Support

Don’t forget, you are delegating this task because the resource has the talent you need to successfully meet the objective. Ensure they have the resources and time commitment (especially if this is a multiple department or inter-agency project) to be successful. Check in with them at a frequency they designate, and do so in-person (do not send an email), to see how they are progressing. Ask how other teams are cooperating, or if they need additional support to accomplish the task. Most importantly ask; “are you still as excited about this task as I am?” And follow up with authentic compliments to help recognize the individual’s work and build professional rapport as the project progresses.

This Technique May Work Better Than You Expect

Recently, I needed a member of another team (who is brilliant, and is constantly tasked with more than his fair share of work) to help me out by developing an API (computer code that let’s one system talk to another) that was very important for my team’s success. It involved partnering with a third department in our agency to create a real-time link with our phone systems to ensure my disaster recovery alerting system always had the latest contact information to reach employees. After checking with another department supervisor to make sure my goal was S.M.A.R.T., I approached the employee with the task and explained how amazing it would be for our organization to have this information available at the touch of a fingertip. Before I could even complete my sales pitch, he was already telling me how excited he was to work on this project, and how the information could be used in other areas of government business. I’ve pledged him my full support and I will be checking in with him on a weekly basis (his requested follow-up period) to find out how I can help clear the way for this project.

How can you apply this method at your agency?

Daniel Hanttula is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

OMB Prepares to Ratchet Up Enterprise Risk Management

Risk Mgmt

For more than a year, the Office of Management and Budget has been readying an update of the seminal Circular A-123, which provides guidance on agency internal financial controls.

Expected in April, the new version will likely impose new requirements that agencies formalize the discipline known as enterprise risk management. “The timing is really important,” according to longtime agency financial executive W. Todd Grams, now director of the Federal Government Services Practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP. He began a stint this month as president of the Association for Federal Enterprise Risk Management, a professional development group that advocates the approach.

OMB, which has circulated drafts and made several promises on timing for the revised circular, declined on Monday to set a release date.

“We’re at a point in the federal government where agencies are facing the greatest risks ever for their mission and must consider the protection of their reputation,” said Grams, a former chief financial officer of the Veterans Affairs Department who has also worked at OMB, the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. As examples of current risks, he cited budget cuts, intense oversight, leadership turnover, cyberattacks and an Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey from 2015 in which only 61 percent of respondents said they believe they can disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation without fear of reprisal for blowing the whistle.

“Enterprise risk management is a way to begin to have these risks elevated,” Grams told Government Executive. “Program leadership conveys to management and employees that it’s okay to raise risks, that it’s actually encouraged, that it’s even a bad thing to sit on risks.”

Throughout his federal career, Grams added, “being clean and open about risk was a good thing. The increase in the number of people who know about risks means they then can mitigate them. But if you’re sitting on a risk, then if it materializes and things go wrong, the impact is not only that you’ll take the hit, but it’s also a surprise to everyone—which is a lot worse.”

When the scandal at the VA erupted over misreported hospital patient wait times, the department “was actually standing up an [enterprise risk management] program that was in its infancy,” Grams said. Had VA been working with a robust ERM program for years, those problems might have been avoided or been dealt with much sooner, Grams said. “Some of the stuff we saw at VA was employee reluctance to raise the issue when they saw it happen,” he said, a phenomenon he labels “psychological safety.”

The same could apply at the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division, which was accused of political bias against conservatives after it mishandled nonprofits’ applications for social welfare status. When Grams arrived at IRS with acting commissioner Danny Werfel in May 2013, one of their first actions was to create an enterprise risk management program, he said. “We need to have the program in place because it’s a journey of years.”

OMB set the stage in June 2015 when it released circular A-11 on budget formulation, Grams said, which for the first time impressed upon agencies that they should be aware of enterprise risk management and view it as an emerging tool. “It put agencies on notice that ERM is a good way to do that. It’s definitely a way to force an organization to establish a formal framework it can consistently apply, so that risks get raised to the attention of senior leaders and management.”

Such an approach “can drive strategy, help with performance and drive budget decisions,” Grams said. “If you know the risks, then you can make decisions on how to accept, eliminate or manage them.” OMB also wants to “make sure agencies all define risk the same way across the organization.”

When the new Circular A-123 emerges, “agencies are going to need help implementing it because the vast majority don’t have the experience,” said Grams, who now takes five or six hours a week from his private-sector day job to lead the risk management association in offering agencies help.

Will the approach endure during the coming new administration? “OMB is positioning the federal government to talk more intelligently about risks,” Grams said. “So when the new president and a new team comes into office, if they’ve implemented [the revised] A-123, agencies can do an initial risk registries list,” a kind of prioritized inventory of things that could go wrong for each agency. “Think of how valuable that would be to new agency heads,” he said.

(Image via txking/

Source: GovExec