Does Generational Change Drive Technological Innovation in Government?

Published: August 10, 2016


The federal workforce is aging. As it does will the drive to innovate suffer?

Last week, a comment in a news article posted by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) caught my attention. As part of a discussion concerning why the Department of Defense (DoD) is “so focused on moving everything to the cloud,” John Hale, ‎the chief of DISA’s Cloud Portfolio in the Services Development Directorate, stated that generational change is driving the expansion of DISA’s and the DoD’s cloud efforts.

To quote Mr. Hale directly, “There is an ‘unbelievable’ and growing demand for instant, in-hand, anytime-they-want-it capability by the mission partner user base.” The “younger generation entering DOD’s workforce has never known a world where the internet, technology, and information is not held in their hand and accessible 24/7. With mobile everything, mobile now, instant on, and instant capability, everything the agency is doing from a cloud computing perspective is geared toward facilitating the demand signal and information sharing [DISA’s] mission partners need. As those folks move into our workforce, that’s what they’re expecting, [and] if we don’t give it to them, they’re going to go somewhere else and get it. If they do that, we lose control over the information.”

What interested me about Mr. Hale’s comment is the assertion that young people, ubiquitously attached to their devices, are driving DISA’s (and DoD’s) move to the cloud. We’ve all heard this claim by federal officials before. Chief Information Officers utter it in public fora and it is often found in online comments by feds in the media. I wonder, however, if it’s true.

Anecdotal evidence is notoriously difficult to validate and yet more often than not it is repeated in place of hard evidence that may demonstrate the contrary. For example, claims have been made for years that the adoption of cloud computing by federal agencies is too slow. The argument that something is “too slow” or “too fast” is a value judgment. Meanwhile, the evidence shows that agencies are moving to the cloud as rapidly as suits their comfort level and their state of technological advancement. To move faster than these things involves risk, something agency-types hate.

But I digress. Returning to the subject of generational change driving technological innovation, please examine the following data pulled from the FedScope demographic website.

According to the data, the percentage of people under 30 years of age in federal employment has declined precipitously in the five years. The number of very young people, those between 20 and 24 years of age has declined the most, a staggering 39% if we round up the number. The federal government isn’t losing young people, it is hemorrhaging them. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of employees 65 years and older is rising, and strongly at that. The number of employees in their 30s is the only cohort that shows sustained moderate growth.

The numbers don’t look any better if aggregated solely for the Department of Defense, either.

The reality is that the younger generation is fleeing government employment, whether it is in the Defense or Civilian sectors. I didn’t crunch the numbers for active military personnel, but in general the number of active sailors, soldiers, and air people has been declining for years with the shrinking of the Defense budget.

All of this leads back to the question asked at the top of this analysis – does generational change drive technological innovation in the federal government? Anecdotal evidence says it does, but the hard facts say it can’t, unless tech innovation is directed at a shrinking slice of federal employees, which makes no sense financially. Why pander to the needs of a smaller and smaller number of people?

The evidence points to two conclusions. First, “young” people are not the only ones addicted to mobile devices. How many people 30+ years of age do you know who spend every waking moment checking their devices? Second, the demand for cloud-based mobile services is not attributable to demand from a shrinking younger generation of feds and military personnel. People of all ages are interested in using these technologies.

The answer to our original question, therefore, must be no. Generational change can’t be the primary factor driving federal innovation. Fiscal necessity, legislative and executive directives, and the desire to leverage innovation provided by commercial partners are far more powerful drivers; so don’t worry, an aging federal workforce won’t stop innovation.