“Find the truth. Tell the truth.” is a core value of the U.S. Digital Service, and Ben Damman uses the mantra to share his sentiments on how it applies to California technology projects, particularly related to the nascent Office of Digital Innovation.
While Ben’s context is California, the gist applies to governments everywhere.
The traditional operating public sector principle is to shut down the hard conversations. This is common in command and control leaderships that discourage open discussions or questioning of authority. We see this dynamic within the bureaucratic hierarchy, but also with the relationship between government and vendors.
This is important, because when digital projects fail, it’s often not the technology, but the underlying culture that sets the precedence for success or failure. Operating inside a culture of fear will inevitably lead to digital project failure.
As Ben notes, especially in this day and age, “Eventually the truth does come out, but there are usually severe consequences for kicking the can so far down the road.”
Ben’s comments here are especially important for anyone in a government leadership position:
Telling the truth creates the space necessary to actually solve a problem. It allows decision makers to see what is really happening and decide to make necessary changes. It can unleash teams; empowering them to work with confidence and clarity.
When creating a results-oriented culture, truth-telling is fundamental. I have observed that teams pursuing the truth are more focused on results.
Teams that prioritize project optics over reality usually struggle to produce desired outcomes. State leaders must recalibrate incentives. If consultants and staff are punished for telling the truth, they are not going to tell the truth — putting projects in jeopardy. Instead, truth-tellers must be rewarded. They have to feel safe and be empowered.
In my experience, teams that face facts are more able to trust each other. Low truth environments produce low trust teams. On IT projects, where collaboration and coordinated iteration are paramount, low trust translates to low performance and high conflict communication.
It turns out that telling the truth is not just a moral imperative. Over time, it is more efficient than hiding the truth. Dishonesty creates friction.
I am reminded of times when I’ve seen government employees struggle to tell the whole truth without getting into trouble. They performed verbal somersaults; twisting events to formulate a positive spin on project status, misconduct, or some obvious collective failure.