May 15 2020

Creative Work by Feds Creates the Foundation for an Emergency Pivot

Flexible thinking about daily, mundane work primes workers to react quickly to the unexpected.

We all know the story of Apollo 13 — how NASA engineers, desperate to find a way to bring the dangerously damaged craft home, designed a makeshift filter out of manual covers and duct tape to clear ­carbon dioxide out of the air. That, and a few other creative maneuvers that weren’t quite by the book, saved the lives of three astronauts. The rest is history.

That kind of innovative and flexible thinking is valuable in an emergency, but federal workers find ways to incorporate it into their daily routines as well. Agencies with limited staff or budgets — or both — are always looking for ways to keep the mission moving without all of the resources they expect. They’re using and repurposing technology and relying on workers’ skills and creativity to solve problems.

Some who are short of funding, for example, have turned to the Technology Modernization Fund, a 3-year-old mechanism that grants money to agencies that apply for funding for IT modernization programs; the agencies that get the money must pay it back within five years.

A few of those agencies have used that money to further their projects. The Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Labor departments are among those that have received nearly $90 million in funding so far, and some have even begun to pay back the money.

Agencies Must Prepare for the Unexpected

Other agencies are beginning to share resources to make their workloads more efficient. The General Services Administration has created a series of Quality Service Management Offices that should let agencies cut back on duplicative work and let employees take care of higher-level duties.

At a time when the world as we know it changes every day — sometimes it seems like every minute — creativity and flexibility are key. When federal workers have practice applying their knowledge to a relatively mundane technological problem to come up with a solution, there’s no doubt that they’ll be able to work through the biggest surprises, no matter what they are.

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