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Knowledge Management for the Digitally-Transformed Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
September 6, 2016

Governments have always been the biggest producers of data. Since the beginning of the open data initiatives started by President Obama in 2009, federal agencies have been mandated to open up their datasets and make the data accessible to the public. Seven years later has proven the value of releasing federal government data to developers and the public. I have chronicled the increasing number of beneficial apps in my weekly column for the General Services Administration’s Digital Gov. During that time, I have wondered about the state of knowledge management in the federal government and how that may help with the digital transformation of the federal agencies.

For further insights, I have interviewed Ms. Tara Mohn, the knowledge management guru at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). As a pioneer in the harmonization of knowledge management (KM) and government strategy at the Foreign Service Institute, the knowledge manager of the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS), Tara Mohn is a practitioner, teacher and speaker in KM strategy, methods and tools such as SharePoint. Tara is leading a knowledge management initiative at SPAS. In the future, she hopes to lead a similar effort for the State Department and other federal government agencies.

Question 1: What is the current state of knowledge management in the federal government?

“Mega structures such as federal government agencies are floating among huge quantities of digital data, documentation, email communications, websites, social media messages/posts and social capital. The impacts of knowledge overload can drown our government leaders’ ability to make the best decisions promptly. It appears that each agency is producing its solution for managing its knowledge. Some are better, some are worse, but all are distinct with custom priorities, different measures and uncommon output.

There is no master knowledge plan that pervades multiple agencies; the federal government needs a coordinated strategy led by a cadre of experts to properly handle information and knowledge strategically. All agencies would have access to the best KM solutions. Everyone would be speaking the same language and measuring the same success factors.

This is an exciting time for knowledge managers in the federal government. More and more agencies are recognizing the need for a purposeful knowledge management strategy. At this time, the Office of Personnel Management is exploring the creation of a knowledge management series to support the hiring of knowledge management resources.”

Question 2: How can knowledge management contribute to the digital transformation of the federal government?

“The ubiquity of knowledge management technologies such as SharePoint and have begun to persuade government workers that it is OK if we do not print out a hard copy of every document. This is a significant culture shift from 10 years ago when printing out paper copies of everything was strongly recommended and often done.

Knowledge management by its nature includes the selection, sharing and findability of knowledge assets. So as we digitally transform our agencies, the knowledge management framework established will inform users of the location of the digitized asset. There will be no need to print anything since the asset will be available in a logical familiar online location.

The White House’s Digital Services Office has created a playbook which sets out 13 “plays” for handling digital transformation in government, knowledge management concepts are weaved throughout these plays. Checklists and questions are ready to be used to keep the government digitization projects on track and successful.”

Question 3: What are some knowledge management best practices that Federal agencies can adopt now?

“Knowledge management best practices that are being used right now include knowledge processes integrated into the technology tools available. For example, I heard that one agency had a rule that whenever an email thread was more than two exchanges long, the entire conversation had to be transferred to a wiki page, and the conversation would be continued there. This process rule leads to documentation of knowledge in a location that persists. Valuable discussions will be retained on the wiki as a regular part of doing business.

The knowledge continuity cycle used at the State Department was designed to purposefully leverage the important knowledge touch-points in an employee’s tenure: on-boarding, enriching/using knowledge bases, and knowledge capture before departure. Often new staff is thrown abruptly into the job, are not aware of the tools and resources available in the knowledge bases, and are allowed to depart with no effort made to capture their valuable knowledge. Every single federal government staff member goes through the phases of the knowledge continuity cycle, so this knowledge management solution can start being used anywhere.”

One final thought: the key to the successful digital transformation of the government lies in a robust governmentwide knowledge management strategy.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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