Rich McKay: Almost everyone has been in a stressful meeting about a project that’s running behind. You know the feeling: the anxiety churning our guts like a rickety washing machine, the dread of being singled out, the fidgeting as each second ticks off
For Marina Nitze, her meeting had an added wrinkle. It just happened to involve the former President of the United States: Barack Obama.
As the Chief Technical Officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at the time, Marina had to inform President Obama about a software update that was critical for the agency’s digital transformation. But the government’s sluggish bureaucracy was delaying the project.
President Obama was frustrated but listened to Marina’s explanation about risk averse stakeholders, slow approval processes, and other institutional roadblocks.
He genuinely wanted to help and offered solutions, but even the President couldn’t make the entrenched bureaucracy of the agency move faster.
For Marina Nitze, that meeting confirmed her belief that there had to be a better way to get things done—even in a complex organization like the government.
This is Rich McKay of Workday. Today on the Workday podcast, we’re talking with Marina Nitze, former CTO of the VA, author of the new book Hack Your Bureaucracy, and advocate for foster care reform. Marina talks of her experiences solving seemingly impossible problems and how you can help drive long-term change in your organization.
We're very excited for you to join. We're going to talk all about your role in government and any advice you have about hacking your bureaucracy.
Marina Nitze: Thanks for having me.
McKay: Awesome. Let's get started. In your new book, “Hack Your Bureaucracy,” you shared a funny anecdote about a painful meeting, where you're supposed to provide an update about your project, which was falling behind due to a sluggish bureaucracy. Anyone can relate to this, but in this case you were reporting that to President Obama, and it was about updating the software for the Veterans Administration. It sounds very stressful. And can you share more about that meeting and what you learned?
Nitze: Yeah, it's funny now, but at the time it was less funny. What it showed me is that when you have myself, my team, my bosses, the president of the United States—everybody wants something to happen. In a bureaucracy, that's not enough to make it happen. There are still steps to follow, policies to follow, procedures to follow. And following those things and actually using them against themselves is what really creates change.
McKay: Anyone can relate to that situation, no matter where you work. In that case, what makes someone effective in a bureaucracy, whether it's government, private companies, or even universities? And why are some people more effective than others?
Nitze: I think what makes you effective in a bureaucracy, and I learned this in many ways the hard way, is you have to understand how it works. You have to understand its incentive and risk frameworks. And you have to really avoid the temptation, which is where I see people fail a lot, in thinking that the answer is to just blow up the whole thing, or to sidestep the rules. Can I just get a waiver or an exception to this? And sometimes, the answer is yes. But that's not going to be a repeatable process. Other people aren't going to be able to follow that after you. And if you take an exception without asking for it, you will discover that 40 new rules appear in place of previous rules to make sure that nobody else ever gets to go down that loophole again.
McKay: Yeah, that's so funny. It's like the tag on pillows saying “don't tear off this tag,” or all these other little rules. You don't know how or what situation generated those rules. You never want to be the person who’s the reason for the rule. But then you need to get stuff done. You need to break a few rules.
Nitze: In that case, I think instead of telling you to break the rule, although I will probably admit to cutting the tags off my pillow, I would look at how you can rewrite the rules. How can you change the form? How can you go to the source of the rule and figure out if it's a rule at all? If you know the “five whys” technique from Toyota Production Management, you ask why five times until you get to the root cause of something. More often than not in a bureaucracy, I found that when you finally get to the language in the policy, sometimes it doesn't exist. Which is pretty nice. Or you find it and it actually gives you a lot more flexibility than like the 20 years of strata that have developed on top of it made you believe.
McKay: You have an interesting path. You started a business at three, then you created websites, websites when you were 12. And could you tell us more about that?
Nitze: Yeah, I was not very good at being a kid. I always loved to work and I love to solve problems. My first business when I was three was selling packs of magazine subscription cards. You know, the little free ones that come in the middle of magazines. It was not particularly profitable, but I believed I was solving a problem at the time. But when I started getting to websites, I was honestly building sites for all my favorite soap opera characters because I enjoyed coding. And I saw this sort of gap. It was just when the concept of a website was becoming real. And then from there, I started building more sites for actors themselves on the soap operas, and then a number of businesses. And really, for me, the coding was about solving problems with technology and with business process redesign. And that has basically been my whole life since.
McKay: Yeah, that's so interesting. I don’t know what I was doing at 12. And my first job was at McDonald's. And so that [building websites for actors] would have been a huge step up.
Nitze: There's no shame in working at McDonald's. That is good.
McKay: That's true. For a 16-year-old, free food and all that was pretty good. And so when and why did you get into government? And what were your motivations?
Nitze: So I'm a lifelong libertarian who always saw government from outside and said, why is this so messed up? And I admit to having that same feeling I mentioned a few minutes ago that you shouldn't have, which is just get rid of the thing. And then the White House created a program called the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which was an offshoot of the White House Fellows Program for entrepreneurs that were tech savvy and wanted to come in for 18-month tours of duty. And I saw this and thought it was just crazy enough to send in my resume. And then when they picked me, I thought it was just crazy enough to leave my apartment in Seattle for just six months, just six measly months, and go to the White House and see what it would really be like. And I started working for Nick Sinai, who is currently my co-author of my new book, and Richard Culatta, at the Department of Education, who both taught me a ton about how you actually get things done in the government. And I sort of fell in love with the problem at that point. And I ended up staying through the end of the Obama administration,
McKay: You eventually became the chief technical officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at age 27. And it's just an amazing journey. You had no college degree. And on top of that, you had a daunting challenge as they had 500 websites where you can find many different websites and management benefits and access services. It may not be 500, but it's probably a lot. So how do you manage all that? How do you transform all those different websites, which is a challenging digital experience? Can you tell me any stories about your time there?
Nitze: Sure. At the VA, I really learned what to do in the face of a seemingly impossible problem, because I don't know how one fixes the VA as a whole. And I don't know that anybody ever will. And we couldn't even agree on how many websites we had. There were three different official lists of how many websites we have, as an example. I did the only thing I could think to do at the time. Since the only thing I ever do to solve this sort of a problem is I started with one thing that I knew I could help fix from the perspective of an end user. And in this case, and from the perspective of a veteran, the thing that we chose to work on was enrolling in VA health care.
Many people mistakenly believe that if you're a veteran, you qualify for health care at the VA. And that's not true. It's actually a fairly complicated set of criteria. And then, when I was CTO of the VA, we were regularly on the front page of the newspaper for many things, but this particular time also because they had found a warehouse with like 800,000 pending paper applications from veterans who were trying to get health care. And the inspector general estimated that 100,000 of those veterans had died waiting for it. It was a tremendous crisis. And it was an opportunity to say, “Hey, how can we fix this from the perspective of the veteran.” And so my team and I went out, and Marianne on my team in particular I want to credit for this, and sat with veterans who were trying and could not get into the VA health care system. And with their permission, we recorded their experience. There's some sad but entertaining videos that we had captured of veterans trying and trying and trying to enroll but the website literally did not work. It literally would not open. And so we started with a plain language explanation of how you even are eligible because again, it's very complicated. We tried to make it plain language. We tested it over and over with veterans to make sure they could understand. We tried out a new form. We tested it over and over to make sure that they could fill it out successfully. And then we slowly connected that form one by one to over 150 Different VA hospitals on the technology backside.
We went from a form that didn't work and a backlog of 800,000 pending paper applications, to now over 2 million veterans who have instantly enrolled in VA health care from their mobile phone. And that process ended up busting a lot of organizational barriers, cutting through a lot of red tape, and clarifying a lot of rules, so that when we then did that for the next business line and the next business line and the next business line, it got incrementally easier. And today, the VA wins customer service awards. The VA is actually leading the entire federal government in customer experience, led by the amazing Barbara Morton, and my successor, Charles Worthington. And a veteran can get almost anything they need done at va.gov right now in one place, and that's 10 years later.
McKay: That's so wonderful. I remember you telling us a story where you had this one-on-one experience with the wife of a veteran, and she was not aware of all the amazing services that were offered.
Nitze: Yeah, one of my favorite tactics, which is in my new book, is called “get out of the office.” And I was very new in my job at the VA and very overwhelmed by what I was supposed to be trying to solve. I had done a “design for delight” session, and I was assigned to sit on a bench at the Menlo Park VA, and talk to anybody that came by. And I am a pretty shy person. I was particularly not looking forward to sitting on a bench and talking to strangers, but I did it. And the first person that sat down next to me was a woman who had been hospitalized at the VA for the last nine months. So she had effectively lived at the VA for nine months. And she's telling me how amazing the doctors were and how amazing the nurses were and what great care they had taken of her and her entire family. And as she's telling me her family's life story, in my head I'm thinking about all the other VA benefits they're eligible for: college benefits for their son, pension, or an automotive modification grant. And I asked her what other VA benefits do you take advantage of? And her answer stunned me, which was, “What other VA benefits?” So here we had a woman who lived at our hospital for nine months and did not know that we had over 80 other benefit lines. And that really opened my eyes to the fact that the VA, like many bureaucracies, is organized around how it works internally and wasn't organized around the veteran.
McKay: 100%. I think a lot of people have experienced where you create something, but it's another thing to get people to use it or want to use it. Or even be aware that it exists no matter what you're doing. Yeah, that's an eye opener. And so moving on. You were an advisor to Todd Park, the U.S. chief technical officer, and their first entrepreneur in residence in the U.S. Department of Education. You also have the fantastic history of doing the seemingly impossible and getting big things done. So can you share any advice from your time in government to help people solve these seemingly impossible challenges like you experienced at the VA and other places?
Nitze: In addition to my work in the federal government, I now do IT crisis consulting at a number of large firms. And I work in foster care reform now with nonprofits and more local governments. And across all of these, there are a few tactics that seem to keep working. And one of my favorites is to look between the silos. This is something anybody can do, no matter where you are in your bureaucracy, including if you're outside it, like maybe you're feeling trapped by your condo association. And when you look between the silos, you want to see the handoff points in a process, because they're usually not very well defended. People have their silos, and they don't want to change anything about that silo. But when silo A hands off to silo B, often that's completely unprotected territory. And that can be a really great place to make change.
One of my favorite stories here is that I was following an application process for becoming a foster parent in a particular state. And as I'm watching it get processed, the woman is using carbon copy paper, which is that multiple colored paper you press really hard and it goes through the three layers to request on the applicant's driving record. And I said, “Well, gosh, why are you using carbon copy paper for that?” And she said, “Oh, it's because the DMV lives in the 19th century.” They only take carbon copy paper.” And so I, having now learned to look between the silos, went over to the DMV, and I said, “Hey, can you show me how you process requests for driving records?” And the woman pulled up an electronic system, saying, “Oh, we get the electronic requests in here, and then I process them this way.” And I said, “Well, I saw some carbon copy paper, where does that play in?” And she said, “Oh, you were at child welfare. Those people live in the 19th century. They're always sending me this carbon copy paper for our electronic system.”
And so in about half an hour, I was able to connect those three different silos who probably would never have met if nobody looked in between and solved this big pain point. And it easily shaved weeks off this overall process for becoming a foster parent just by connecting the two dots. So that's something really anybody, anywhere can do. You can follow something from start to finish and see where they may be dropped off along the way.
McKay: Yeah, that's amazing. I love that approach. Like what is operating between the silos just to break those barriers? I mean, that's just amazing. Why should governments focus on digital innovation, specifically for the people they serve like their customers? And what impact does that have on the people they serve?
Nitze: Governments focus on digital innovation because that's how people want to interact with their government. I'm a super Type A. I love paperwork. I love process. And I do not want to interact with my government any more than I have to. I don't want to be stuck in a myriad of forms. I expect in today's world, most things to be instantaneous. I sure don't want to get on the phone. And I really, really sure do not want to go in person and wait in line all day to do something.
And so the more that digital innovation can meet people where they are to provide those smooth or instantaneous interactions, the better. And another flip of that that I think people don't see as much is that you can also get insights from your digital pieces that you would not be able to get elsewhere. For example, it's pretty trivial these days, where if you have a form online, you can track exactly how long it's taking people to complete that form, and exactly how far they got in the form before they abandon it. And it's pretty hard to do that in person, like you can observe a small handful of people doing something. But when you get into millions of people that gets pretty impossible to observe.
In one example that we found there at the VA, was that most veterans when they were applying for benefits, did not know what their adjusted gross income was from last year. And I don't know about you, but I don't know what mine was either. They wouldn't be warned, which was creating tremendous drop off to getting their benefits. But that's information that the VA can get from the IRS. So we were able, with that insight, to see that it was such a burden to so many people and we removed that burden for everybody. And we only found that because we were able to do that level of digital tracking.
And so I think that there are ways that digital products can create insights and innovations that solve problems for everybody, including those who can't use digital. And I do want to emphasize that digital is great for the people that want to interact that way. But to me another benefit of it is that the people that want to use digital and want to do self-service should be able to do it. And that frees up your staff for the people that can't or don't want to use self-service. Because otherwise, if everybody's in line physically, you know a lot of people really get lost entirely and never get that benefit in the first place.
McKay: Now wonderful. And you previously mentioned you were focused on improving America's child welfare system. So why did you get involved with foster care? And what can governments do better to help children be placed in more safe, stable, and loving families?
Nitze: Yeah, so this could be its own podcast. But I first got involved in child welfare when I became a CASA, which is a court appointed special advocate and a volunteer role. That's probably a corollary to like Big Brothers or Big Sisters. But instead of being a mentor, you're there to be the eyes and the ears for the court to make sure that kids in foster care don't fall through the cracks.
I kept seeing my kids have to move schools two weeks before they finished elementary school, or parents not able to understand how to get a stipend to cover their rent when they were facing eviction, because it was just such a crazy complicated process. I really wanted to get involved in child welfare in some way. When I left the VA, with my newfound bureaucracy hacking skills, I wanted to bring that to foster care and see what I could do.
I run a 20-state working group. Every month, we have a different topic and the 20 child welfare systems in my group get together and we service and scale promising practices around foster parent licensing, recruitment, retention, and placement with a focus on kinship caregivers. I have three high-level goals that I think governments can be doing a lot better in child welfare. I think the vast majority of kids who enter foster care should be placed with an adult that they already know and trust, which is called kin. In addition to relatives, there might be your English teacher or your godparent of the kinship caregivers that have these kids. We should be paying them 100% of the time. And right now, as a country, we only do that about 20% of the time. We pay strangers to take in foster children, but we do not pay kin to take in those exact same children.
And then for the remaining children who truly don't have a kinship caregiver available to take them in, we should be doing a much better job of using data-driven targeted recruitment to make sure that those kids can be in homes that fully meet their needs, and who are in their school district that speaks their language, ideally share their religion, and that can keep them connected to their community and their parents.
And we do a lot of work around that. And a lot of it feels the same as with the VA, and fixing foster care feels overwhelming at times. There are a couple of things on the topic of putting kids with adults that they already know and trust. Take a six-year-old. They don't have an address book of their kin in their back pocket. You have to find those kin and in most states processes for that are really backwards. They send snail mail letters in the mail. And that's about it. But if you help with things like unblocking Facebook, that's a great way to find kin. Or if you change the incentive structure slightly at your placement desk. They have to get a signature from their boss if they're not going to place a child with an adult that they already know and trust. That can really start shifting the numbers toward the kind of behavior that is much better for kids. And so that's a lot of what I focus on. And then we publish the promising practices that we find on our website at childwelfareplaybook.com in a way that any other state can copy it and adapt it for their own use and not have to start from scratch.
McKay: That's interesting. I didn't know that the child welfare system didn't give money to the kin. It's like a lot of caregiving, which largely goes unpaid. I have a son and I couldn't imagine having to take on more children and not having the additional funds, time, or resources to help. We're just putting such a stress even on people who are loving and want to bring this kid into their homes.
Nitze: And that's really what we're shining the light on—to help the families. Because when you're sitting at that kitchen table with them, you understand that they have 75 requirements that they have to meet to take in a child, including a tuberculosis test, getting their cat registered, and having recycling services. These all sound fine on paper. But when you actually sit with a family, you realize that they are extremely problematic burdens, and we need to get them out of the way if families are safe enough to place a kid.
McKay: 100%. That's really amazing. Thanks for sharing that. And you also do talk about that business process engineering. So how is that related to the government?
Nitze: Yeah, to me what isn't? In government, the bigger the process is, the fewer and fewer people you have that really understand how it works from start to finish. It's not a magic trick. Anybody listening to this can do it. You just have to follow the process from start to finish. And especially when you're considering it from an end user’s perspective. So where are they getting confused? Where are they falling off? Where is something falling through the cracks? Where are there three possible ways to go? And it's not really clear which one to go through. Government could do such a better job if it considered these flows in it from an efficiency perspective, and from a customer service perspective, in terms of the end user that needs the benefit.
McKay: Excellent. And how can technology and data help governments provide a seamless, unified experience for the customers?
Nitze: I don't think technology is ever a goal in and of itself. Technology is a way to help you get to your other goals. I see a lot of efforts like we have to get rid of the mainframes or we have to get everything onto the cloud. And like those may be fine parts of achieving your other goal. But what is your actual goal? Is your goal to process your claims within five days? Is your goal to get people their food stamps on the same day? Technology can certainly help though, with crossed benefit access, which is something that we've tried to do a lot at the VA. It's not realistic to have someone understand 80 different benefit lines and how they intersect and then apply for each one. So to the extent that we can use data and technology to provide self-service, or even back end data automation for manual employees that are helping people to pre-populate forms and to pre-figure your eligibility to make processes easier, I think that's all net win.
McKay: We always like to advise people like what are your goals, even before you choose an ERP or an enterprise management cloud provider like Workday, because that's what will help guide you in the process so much more. Like getting your data in order to figure out where it's coming from, your goals in order, and your processes. It helps make the process so much better.
Nitze: And nothing drives that sort of change better than an actual real business problem with an actual real goal. I've seen so many governments and large companies and even smaller nonprofits say: “It's been 10 years, we're going to look at every data element and spreadsheet and we're gonna think about it and abstract. Well, the thing that helped us get veterans’ healthcare applications to 150 hospitals, each had different data dictionaries, was doing it. If we just thought about it in a room, I think the paper applications would still be in the warehouse 10 years later.
McKay: Exactly, exactly. So about the people who work in government. How can governments attract and empower people and help them better serve the constituents in their communities?
Nitze: People want to achieve a mission. They want to be part of a mission. The more that you can expose your employees wherever they are to the people that they're helping, even if it's a little or every once in a while, the better. And also expose them upstream and downstream of their own processes so that they see kind of how it all fits together. I think that's really, really the key.
McKay: Okay, awesome. For the next question, I’d like to ask you a little bit about predictions. So are there any technology trends or demographic trends in government that you think will impact government or people over the years? And what will that future of government look like?
Nitze: I think there's a real trend in considering and making an excellent customer experience. And I think there's no reason why the government can't provide an excellent customer experience. And I also see trends more toward direct benefits. And by that, I mean give people cash. Stop putting in 15 layers in the middle to determine exactly what car seat they can spend the cash on. Give them a voucher so they can purchase the car seat that meets their own needs. And I think that there's an increasing move toward that idea that I am really heartened by.
McKay: Okay, great. Excellent. One final question is do you have a motto for life for our credo?
Nitze: I definitely do. It's a Lily Tomlin quote, it's “I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that. And then I realized, I'm somebody.”
McKay: I love that. You know, it's been an amazing conversation. And thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for listening to our conversation about the federal government with Marina Nitze. Be sure to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And remember, you can find our entire catalog of workday.com/podcasts Thanks for tuning in. And I hope you have a great work day.