Putting the User First: Interview with Maria Roat, Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer
Maria Roat, deputy federal chief information officer within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) joined me on The Business of Government Hour to share her thoughts and insights on what is next for IT modernization and the role federal IT plays in transforming the lives of its users. Here are edited highlights of our discussion.
On Being Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversees the implementation of the president’s vision across the Executive Branch. It assists the president in meeting policy, budget, management, and regulatory objectives and fulfills the agency’s statutory responsibilities. OMB core functions include budget development and execution, management and oversight of agency performance, procurement, financial management, and information technology. That last area is where my focus is as deputy federal CIO. I sit within the Office of CIO led by federal CIO Clare Martorana, which resides in OMB’s Office of E-Gov. Our portfolio encompasses technology and cybersecurity across the federal government. My role is to advise the federal CIO and OMB leadership on information technology from policy development, governance, IT modernization, digital service delivery, data governance, and more. The federal IT portfolio is quite broad and involves working with both internal OMB stakeholders, such as the budget side, as well as with all the federal CIOs through the CIO and the CISO councils, respectively.
To do this job effectively, one needs to work with and coordinate across many different stakeholders from within OMB, across the federal government, and with industry. You also need to engage in long-term thinking especially as relates to budget development. The budget drives a lot of this and how you get what you need into the budget to support technology in the federal government. You really have to take a long-term planning view.
I came to OMB from the department and agency side. I was pleasantly surprised by how the “sausage’ is made...that is, the inner workings of the processes for development the budget and the president’s management agenda. Getting to see how this works from the inside has given me perspective on perhaps why policy development takes time. Coming from the agency side my default is on execution, getting things done and keeping things moving. Policy development requires patience and often rests on getting input from across the government making sure you gather the best insights and historical knowledge.
IT Priorities. We are focused on improving the customer experience. We want to harness technology to realize a vision of seamless government based on a technology infrastructure that is nimble, resilient, secure. How do we design and build for our customers, for the people? You build services and offerings using human-centered design to provide users a better experience. Over the last few years with the passages of the IDEA Act and the CASES Act, we have seen emphasis placed on delivering a better user experience. When I use the term user or customer experience, I am most certainly referencing the public who we serve, but it also includes our internal customers, the federal employees who rely on technology to deliver their agencies’ missions. The CIO Council is looking at how we can improve that customer experience across the federal enterprise for internal and external customers.
The CIO Council is also leading project focused on enhancing collaboration and interconnectivity capabilities across the federal enterprise. This involves tools and functions such as email, calendaring, text chat, file sharing, and collaborative platforms such as video conferencing. Several federal agencies that currently engaged in online piloting in this area. We’re looking to scale what they are doing and roll it out because through the pandemic, we recognized that it was critically important that we share and collaborate across the federal government, not just vertically within agencies but also cross agency and with the states as well.
We want to realize the benefits of 21st century technology. This is where the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) helps as well as the application and use of shared services enabling the federal government to grow, not just run, but grow and transform. Other key priorities involve being secure by design putting cybersecurity front and center. With the Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity, there is so much going on that is accelerating our efforts in this area. We also have priorities in the areas of data, IT workforce, and IT portfolio management.
Technology Modernization Fund (TMF). The TMF is an innovative funding vehicle that offers agencies ways to modernize mission critical systems. Its mission is to enable agencies to reimagine and transform the way they use technology to deliver their mission and services to the public in an effective, efficient, and secure manner. It can be a way to improve the cyber posture of critical agency mission assets, invest in enterprise services that allow multiple agencies to share infrastructure, platforms, or applications, and modernize legacy systems. it can also support improvements to customer experience.
To get recognized by the TMF board an agency must build the business case and get to the point. This is not simply an IT thing. The effort needs to address a mission focused issue, have mission alignment, and engagement with program owners and other stakeholders. Over the last three years, every funded project has had to develop a playbook detailing their efforts, what they accomplished, and lessons learned. This document can be shared with other agencies. For example, the HUD mainframe modernization project was a huge, multiyear effort. Much was learned from that project that is being shared with other agencies.
We’re currently looking at projects that cut across agencies and that improve the public’s access to government services. We have received proposals seeking to modernize some high priority systems across the federal government. We are looking at projects that are focusing on crosscutting issues such as cybersecurity, public facing digital services, and privacy. We’ve received over a hundred proposals thus far. What has changed most is the flexibility around repayment. For the initial projects, there was a 100% payback requirement. The board has flexibility with this round. The fund has significantly more money and more flexibility. As such, we increased the capacity of the PMO to reflect these changes, maintaining its proper governance, bringing it to scale, and ensuring the integrity of the process.
COVID-19 and Modernization. When you look back a year and a half ago, we flipped rather seamlessly to 100% telework. As a result, the use of electronic signatures accelerated. I was very heartened by this change. Even though it was a simple change, it was impactful because things got done faster, moving through the process faster than with the usual shuffling of paper.
Whether it was the CARES Act or the America Rescue Plan Act, we were all focused on execution and meeting their critical requirements. We saw agencies move projects along because they received an infusion of funds from these laws. This is how modernization was accelerated. Now it is about keeping and maintaining that sense of urgency. That’s a challenge so we don’t go back to the same old same old. We need that sense of urgency to push and drive modernization.
I can’t say enough about our partnership with industry and the support that we received from the onset of the pandemic. It is a shout out from me personally to all the companies that stepped up very quickly to support many federal agencies. Our partnership with industry is critically important. We work together, sharing information, and best practices...finding ways to enhance and use of government IT.
Leadership. During my twenty-six years in the Navy (including active-duty reserves), I was taught that authority, accountability, and responsibility are qualities integral to leadership. I took this lesson to heart. I complement these foundational qualities with highlighting the importance of being a risk taker. Whether it was in my career, stepping outside my comfort zone, or how I operate, I am a risk taker, doing things differently. For example, at the Small Business Administration (SBA), we took risks and we moved very fast. When I speak of taking risks, of stepping outside one’s comfort zone, it is about taking prudent risk, which is the exact opposite of reckless.
An effective leader must be accountable. That leader must also be decisive. I think they go hand in hand: deciding, being accountable for that decision, and most importantly being accountable to your team, to those you lead. A leader can’t do it alone. One needs a high performing team to accomplish the impossible, and building that comes with being accountable, owning your actions, taking risks, and showing those you lead how incredibly passionate you are your organization’s mission. Leaders also need to exude confidence informed by a sense of optimism and fueled by positive energy. If you have confidence, you can instill motivation and persuade people to participate in your vision, wanting them to join you on this journey. All of these qualities rest on a leader’s dedication, the ability to be present, and do the right thing.
Successful IT Strategy. I was a CIO at SBA. A successful IT strategy comes down to having a plan, sharing that plan, identify outcomes, engaging mission partners and key stakeholders, and being able to execute on that plan. When I arrived a SBA, I realized we needed to modernize IT. SBA was behind the curve on technology. I identified three goals: upgrade workstations, get out of data centers and embrace the cloud, and update our entire IT infrastructure. Regarding the data centers, I wanted to get to four racks in our data center. I knew that was a serious stretch goal that we’d likely get to six, but I wanted to push us to shrink our footprint. In updating our entire infrastructure, we were on a dated star topology, and we moved to an ethernet backbone converging our voice and data. In the end, a successful IT strategy rests on the engagement and buy-in of your mission partners and key stakeholder.
An IT Journey. My interest in computers began in high school. I was interested in business classes. I took math classes. I am actually a math geek. This interest has stayed with me, and I have been involved in tech my entire career. I joined the Navy where I was trained on mainframes, keypunches, and tapes. I started my federal civilian career as a GS-3. I have worked across the federal government in many IT roles as technology changed from running cables and taking apart PCs, to running a global network and running programs, seeing the evolution of IT across the federal government firsthand. I have done almost every type of job in IT. In 2004, I began working at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on the secure flight program. I spent 10 years at DHS. As I did throughout my career, I believe in taking risks, stepping outside of my comfort zone, and taking on different jobs. During this time, I also stood up the FedRAMP program. It was an incredible experience getting to stand up and run one of the first governmentwide programs. At SBA, I focused on modernizing its IT infrastructure. Considering I started as a GS-3 back in 1985, it’s been quite a journey. I’m currently the senior civilian in technology in the federal government. I’ve never thought about it in those terms. That’s just incredible and given the journey, it’s incredibly humbling.