Leadership Stories: Suzette Kent, Federal CIO on Changing the Way Government does IT
Regarding technology modernization, U.S. federal agencies have fallen behind that they will have to work aggressively just to catch up with basic private sector practice. On many levels, inertia has long plagued government IT, slowing modernization, and preventing the federal government from achieving IT advances and efficiencies commonplace in the private sector. However, things are beginning to change. New legislation, funding opportunities, and technologies are here to turn the tide. Cybersecurity, data management, infrastructure improvements, and advanced analytics are critical to the federal government IT vision. Federal agencies will have to pursue decades-long data and IT modernization plans so that government services meet the expectations citizens have cultivated from commercial tech experiences.
- What are the U.S. federal government’s IT modernization priorities?
- How can the U.S. federal IT community work together to drive good government through technology?
Suzette Kent, Federal Chief Information Officer joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss these questions and much more—providing her leadership story on changing the way U.S. government agencies do IT. Here's an edited preview of our discussion.
The federal CIO’s official charge is the development of policy governing the use of technology across the federal enterprise while also tracking and overseeing outcomes achieved in accordance with those policies. I position my office to be a strategic enabler for federal agencies to meet their many diverse and important missions. We are developing policies that help agencies use the best available technology capabilities while maturing business processes, leveraging industry best practices, and ensuring that there are no barriers in the end to end process from procurement to people enablement, ensuring that we can deliver on the technology agenda for the U.S. federal government.
Coming from the private sector to the government, many of the IT and technology challenges facing both sectors are quite similar. Most federal agencies rely on technology to deliver services to the American people and support the work of the federal workforce in delivering those services. How do we move from antiquated systems to modern technologies? How do we do that in such a complex entity as the U.S. federal government? How do we craft a vision and a path forward in an environment where there are many different stakeholders with varying views? We’re talking about leveraging new and emerging technologies, delivering shared services, moving to cloud, and digitization of processes and the customer service experience in general. A key challenge is how do we do these things faster by doing IT differently--changing policy guidance, crafting regulations, and passing legislation working with our congressional partners.
Our key priorities are laid out in the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). IT challenges guiding the administration’s efforts to modernize federal IT follow three priorities:
- Enhancing mission effectiveness by improving the quality and efficiency of critical citizen-facing services, including through the increased utilization of cloud-based solutions such as email and collaboration tools.
- Reducing by leveraging current commercial capabilities and implementing cutting edge cybersecurity capabilities.
- Building a modern IT workforce by recruiting, reskilling, retaining professionals able to help drive modernization with up-to-date technology.
These are the top elements. But to achieve them, we are pursuing technology modernization which includes cyber security, cloud smart strategy, data as a strategic asset, and workforce enablement.
If I boiled it down into a single statement: We must be focused on delivering better service to the public doing so should be developed in furtherance of these priorities. Pursuing these goals will result in building and maintaining a modern, secure, and resilient IT, which improves the lives of the American public.
The Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) plays an integral in achieving our IT strategic vision. I was glad to come into the government after the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act created the working capital funds and the TMF that give federal agencies the ability to have multi-year money for a large scale IT transformation and to leverage their own savings for ongoing enhancement. Operating and working with the technology modernization fund gives us the ability to shorten the time between having a great idea and actually getting that idea out and seeing the early returns. It also made people to think about projects and actually stage and sequence them differently. Even when we fund a project, they don’t get all of the money in the beginning. They get tranches of money as deliverables and outcomes are achieved. One thing that we challenge ourselves on the Board and with the GSA PMO team is how do we continue to move more quickly? Our initial round received over forty proposals totaling more than $400 million in requested funds. We continue to finesse the process. We’re getting great feedback. From my perspective, it is working in exactly the way congress envisioned.
Accelerating the migration and use of cloud across the federal enterprise requires what we call a cloud smart strategy, which is a maturation of the previous cloud first policy. We’re not backing off of the cloud first commitment. Cloud first policy reflected the early days of cloud technology. Cloud smart responds to some of the barriers keeping agencies from moving to the cloud. The strategy offers ways to evaluate the right solution. It also includes the critical elements of security, procurement, and workforce enablement. What we also found when we went out to many of the agencies is that they bought some cloud technology, but then they didn’t know what to do with it. They couldn’t fully leverage what they had bought because they hadn’t made the commensurate investment with how they skill their people. The cloud smart strategy requires specific commitments to workforce enablement as an integral part of any cloud migration project. We are ensuring that the federal workforce can sustain the solutions that we are putting in place and that we can move quickly. In the end, we’re focusing on getting agencies better solutions, tailored to fit their respective mission needs, which involves connecting with the vendor community to assess ever expanding capabilities.
When I think about shared services in the federal government, I marry it to the mission of technology modernization and being effective stewards of taxpayer money. First, we are targeting some of the oldest system across the entire federal government. Pursuing shared services offers an opportunity to build it once and use it many times. Second, when I think about effective stewardship of taxpayer money, when we identify areas where 85% to 90% of the functionality in the business process is common across agencies and we go buy that product/service over and over again then we are not effective stewards of taxpayer money. I will use the example right now of what is going on with payroll and the new pay situation. We are at about 90% of agencies agreeing on common functions through very robust, defined business process standard setting activities. With shared services, we have can go forward leveraging common solutions.
It is a continuous challenge every single day to be effective in a cyber security, which is an essential component of our modernization strategy. We are never done. We are pursuing serious programs. We are focusing on securing federal IT systems and infrastructure. We are focusing on enhancing cyber skills and workforce enablement in responding to the ever evolving cyber threat spectrum.
Federal agencies are much more focused and motivated by the citizens they serve and they are held accountable to the expectations of these citizens. I was asked: what does success look like? If I boiled it down to one thing, “success is a satisfied citizen”. It also means that we are good stewards of taxpayers’ money.
Success won’t happen without leadership. These key leadership qualities include in-depth subject matter expertise, solid listening and communication skills, a clear strategic vision, and a plan to execute on that vision. It’s not only about where you’re going, but a real leader must outline the steps of how you get there and how you overcome barriers to success, which takes a different level of intensity and support.