This week I heard an interesting story about a government organization that issues grants of different types and has recently innovated the assessment process for the proposals it receives. The process involves assessors from government, industry and academia, who used to gather at a physical location, to perform the assessment: this consisted of reading proposals, assessing them individually according to a set of predetermined criteria and discussing in team meetings to agree about whether proposals are worth funding or not.
Recently, in order to increase efficiency, the organization made part of the process remote. Proposals are made accessible online to assessors, who read and assess them remotely to then gather physically for the meeting phase.
As several people today carry tablets or netbooks, quite a few showed up for the face to face meetings with their own devices storing electronically annotated versions of the proposals to discuss. To their surprise, though, they were prevented from using any electronic device on site, as this would violate the current procedures. While this was understandable with the traditional system, electronic devices such as cellphones and smartphones have already been in use for quite a while and the only way to prevent information leaks during the process was anyway by enforcing the assessor’s code of conduct, which prevents them from sharing any information about the proposals or the process.
As a consequence, the process became less efficient, with assessors having to reconstruct their annotations on paper copies they were handed at the physical site.
This is great example of how government struggles with innovation, by taking a piecemeal approach rather than addressing the overall impact on processes and procedures.
Ideally, the entire assessment process should take place remotely, with assessors connecting via telepresence tools, and never transferring any material on their devices but accessing to something like a “proposal cloud”. However this would set quite a high bar as far as broadband access for all those involved.
A reasonable compromise would be to accept that tablets and netbooks exist, pretty much like cellphones have been available for well over twenty years. Assessors who intend to leak information will, as soon as they leave the assessment site, whether they carry a tablet or not. Banning their use is like preventing employees from accessing social networking sites from the workplace: they will anyhow from home or their portable devices.
So let’s accept that the train has long left the station. We can either run and try to catch it, or stand on the rails with our arms wide open waiting for it to stop. Which one do you think will work ?