Leadership, succession at heart of IT acquisition challenges
Williamsburg, Va. — Top federal IT and acquisition leaders, looking ahead to 2020, believe a combination of acquisition, workforce and technology reforms are critical to buying and integrating technology more effectively at federal agencies.
Speaking in a series of discussion panels at ACT-IAC’s Executive Leadership Conference Tuesday, current and former federal officials took turns describing what steps agency leaders — and industry executives — must focus on to improve how agencies acquire and use technology.
“Leadership is the thing we really need to double down on,” U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott said.
Scott also stressed the importance of developing skills around adaptability, creativity and speed heading toward 2020.
Of the three, “I think speed is an even more critical element. If you’re slow, you’re in deep trouble. If we had to focus on one thing, it’s how do we get speed and are we measurably faster,” he said. That means being faster to fail, but more importantly, faster to succeed, he said.
The clock is ticking quickly, however; and the need for effective leaders to tackle those issues is growing more urgent, Scott and other CIOs said.
“When you look at the number of technology leaders due to get out of government” because of retirements and the transition to a new administration in 2017, Scott raised a crucial question: “Have we done everything we can do to develop the next generation of leaders?”
“We‘re leaving and we’re leaving fast,” Scott said, adding the question applies not only within government, but “throughout our IT ecosystem,” including the private sector that supports government.
A second critical IT issue facing the government, Scott said, is the urgency for the private and public sector to accelerate efforts to develop IT systems and software applications that “are more secure by design.”
“Most of the technology government has invested in, and that the private sector has produced,” is based on designs developed 20 years ago, he said. He dismissed the practice of wrapping systems in “security bubble wrap” and urged technology providers to rethink “technology from a security-by-design perspective.”
Acquisition issues, nevertheless, continue to create a tremendous drag on efforts to speed up the development and rollout of technology applications in government.
“The acquisition piece is broken,” said Rob Burton, a partner at Venable LLP and a former Office of Federal Procurement Policy deputy administrator, who says he’s seen the breakdown from both sides. He blames much of the problem on the fact that “government has so much trouble communicating with industry.”
“Almost every legal issue I’ve dealt with [over procurement disputes] has to do with defective requirements,” he said. The solution, he said, involves getting government agencies to engage with industry “in a more robust way – I’m talking face to face, and not just sharing information.”
That sentiment seemed to be reflected among the several hundred industry and government executives attending the conference. A spot electronic poll of audience members showed a near majority — 47 percent of 209 individuals who responded — said modifying procurement regulations was the No. 1 thing government can do to adopt technology faster. That was followed by 38 percent who voted for collaborating with innovators.
While the federal government’s bureaucratic and burdensome procurement processes remain at the center of frustrations between industry and government, the underlying issue, executives agreed, has more to do with leadership practices, and empowering people, than with the complexity of technology.
David Bray, CIO at FCC, warned that with data doubling every two years, “There’s no text book for the exponential change,” creating even greater need for IT leaders. “We can’t be incremental. We need to be bold in building coalitions.” At the same time, CIOs need to be willing to take “informed risks” and take measures to “protect your team,” if they are to help their agencies move forward, he said.
Bray and Ann Dunkin, CIO at EPA, reinforced the belief that while cumbersome acquisition practices and regulations remain a challenge, the most effective paths forward involve developing the right cadre of people who willing to think creatively and not necessarily buy into so-called blue laws — rules that stem from habits and beliefs rather than actual statutes.
“I don’t think you need to change procurement regulations,” so much as “ change the way people [think about] and follow the rules,” she said.
Bray described the impact of the FCC’s “Operation Server-Lift,” executed in September that involved moving much of the agencies IT operations and applications from 300 agency-run servers to the cloud and “cutting the cables” on the legacy servers. The effort is on track to reduce the agency’s operating and maintenance budget from 85 percent, to less than 50 percent, of the agency’s IT budget. But it also helped create a new spirit of teamwork and empowerment, he said.
Nevertheless, the inevitable fact that it takes longer to get projects completed in government demands that CIOs give more deliberate thought to succession planning, said FEMA CIO Adrian Gardner. “I really worry about who’s coming with me and behind to take my seat. My goal is to hire my replacement and get [them] up to speed,” he said.
Dunkin believes agencies are heading in the right direction. “If we stay on the trajectory we’re on, by 2020 we will have a much more agile, nimble government, but we need to keep working on it.”