Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include additional comments from FCC CIO David Bray.
As new political appointees cycle in and out of agencies, career bureaucrats often try to insulate themselves to change, creating a kind of “scar tissue” that inhibits innovation, said Environmental Protection Agency Chief Technology Officer Greg Godbout.
“You have to tear open that scar — sorry for the grossness of that — and basically say, ‘We need you to be open to learning and changing yourself,’” he said during a panel discussion Tuesday on acquiring and managing emerging technologies.
New appointees must work with teams closest to the end users to improve services, he said. And he said the more space there is between the end user and the upper echelons, the more of a challenge that becomes.
Not all the panelists at the event, sponsored by trade group Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association’s Bethesda chapter, liked Godbout’s analogy: Federal Communications Commission CIO David Bray said he “cringed” at Godbout’s characterization, adding that many senior service officers were eager to improve.
“There are people who are really hungry to make changes in public service,” Bray said.
Later in an email to FedScoop, Bray wrote, “There are plenty of non-partisan senior execs who are chopping at the bit to make a difference and innovate, they just haven’t been invited to — so we press on despite any political backing.”
But Godbout said that scar tissue can exist at any level where processes are entrenched. “Ultimately your job is to deliver,” he said. “It is very difficult when someone who you’ve never met, from 10 layers above, who comes in and tells you without your input ‘go in this direction’ … Inevitably, you build up scar tissue.”
Innovating in the federal government has been the subject of many IT conferences around Washington, D.C. Officials have touted the success of digital services shops like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service as bright spots for a sector blighted by its reputation for stodginess. But according to a Partnership for Public Service analysis of the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, workers have reported a decline in innovation since 2010.
Rafael Diaz, CIO of Department of Housing and Urban Development, said change continues to pose a challenge for government.
“We’re really working in a 200-year-old structure managed by 100-year-old policies laws, and we’re trying to innovate,” he said.
Planning for FITARA
Meanwhile, officials also talked about the complications of implementing the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, the sweeping legislation that centralizes the IT budgeting in the department CIO’s office. For example, Transportation Department CIO Richard McKinney said agency lawyers determined that the CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration would oversee DOT subagency’s own IT spending under FITARA. It would not go through the department’s CIO.
“FAA has always had this statutory independence. They have their own purchasing independence that’s totally independent of the rest of the federal government,” he told FedScoop.
McKinney added that he and FAA CIO Tina Amereihn frequently coordinate efforts.
“You have to play the cards you’re dealt. And those were the cards that I was dealt. It’s only a problem added for folks who think the CIO should be king,” he said during the panel.