Agencies need leadership buy-in to innovate, officials say

Agency leadership needs to be fully on board with modernization projects if agencies are going to innovate, according to two federal technology experts who lead such projects in their agencies.

Agency leadership needs to be fully on board with modernization projects if agencies are going to innovate, according to two federal technology experts who lead such projects in their agencies.

James Harris, CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and John Skudlarek, deputy CIO for the Federal Communications Commission, spoke of how their agencies are driving innovation at a demo day for Dcode42, an incubator to connect startups with government agencies.

Skudlarek has helped the FCC complete a slew of projects over the past 18 months, moving its on-premise data center to the cloud, redesigning its website, and standing up three redesigned systems on Amazon Web Services and Appian platforms. 

He highlighted how internal struggles around decades-old policies and workflows were upended after the tech team convinced FCC brass they needed their support if they were going to overhaul systems that were desperately in need of a refresh.


“You have to produce stuff that works, but you have to have leadership to give you top cover to have some breathing room to let people settle in to the new way of doing things,” Skudlarek said. “I’m not saying I want to give people garbage and make people figure out how to use it, but I am saying that you can innovate. But it has to be disruptive, and people are uncomfortable with that.”

Harris said DIA CIO Janice Glover-Jones is driving innovation within the agency by pushing people to do things as rapidly as possible.

“She’s really pushing how to we get problems solved, how do we solve them quicker, how do we create value in ways we haven’t thought of before,” Harris said.

Glover-Jones told FedScoop earlier this year she looks at innovation beyond “buying the latest piece of technology or software” and challenges everyone from leadership to more junior staff to use the tools they have to do things differently.


Elizabeth Pemmerl, head of GitHub’s government team, said agencies can rely on things like open source software or GitHub’s version control network to allow the public to contribute to government innovation.

“Plenty of people who work in government, plenty of teenagers, 21-year-old guys in Bolivia are hacking on something that can really contribute to a government mission,” Pemmerl said. “This opportunity to bring this amazing open-source community into the fold to help advance specific mission objectives at various agencies is a huge driver for us.” 

GitHub is used across 131 different federal offices, including a new initiative inside the Commerce Department that will allow teams to collaborate on various projects.

“Publishing a data set, project or request on GitHub means involving GitHub’s more than 15 million users in creation of the solution,” Pemmerl told FedScoop. “Agencies at all levels of government can benefit from this approach.”

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Greg Otto

Written by Greg Otto

Greg Otto is Editor-in-Chief of CyberScoop, overseeing all editorial content for the website. Greg has led cybersecurity coverage that has won various awards, including accolades from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Prior to joining Scoop News Group, Greg worked for the Washington Business Journal, U.S. News & World Report and WTOP Radio. He has a degree in broadcast journalism from Temple University.

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