U.S. CTO: Don’t let budgets slow innovation

In times of constant budget cuts, U.S. CTO Megan Smith said agencies need to "find the scrappy way" to improve their systems.

Despite stiff budget cuts felt in IT shops around government, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith believes talented federal IT workers can still find ways to get things done when times are tough.

Smith told federal IT officials Tuesday at the CIO Council’s IT Symposium a story about a CIO who gave up on fixing the agency’s website because it was too costly.

“We can’t talk like that,” the U.S. CTO said. “Let’s find the scrappy way to fix the website together.”

Agencies with innovation labs, like the Department of Health and Human Services and its IDEA Lab, do this. But ideas shouldn’t just come from technically inclined folks, she said.


“The best way to design that is not to have some special group of people way over there — the innovation group — and everybody else is over here,” she said. “The whole team can innovate. Everyone has ideas.”

Lisa Schlosser, the deputy administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology in the Office of Management and Budget, who was also interviewing Smith, agreed.

“It’s also the little things,” she said, like using already-available tools and information to better serve customers. “Use that data to create innovation within your own organization … If you can take data to people who own the money and control the budget in you organization and show how you want to invest to do something better, that is the way to do it.”

A leader in OMB’s IT budgeting efforts, Schlosser is frequently faced with funding issues. Her advice to those with budgeting woes was to prove you can do it first, show evidence and then ask for money.

“When an agency has come up with an innovative plan as part of their budget where they can show that with specific milestones, very specific deliverables and a very strategic approach to transforming their organization from a business-and-mission standpoint using technology, they have been supported by OMB, and I’ve seen them supported throughout the process,” she said. Running a small pilot before requesting money can also make a huge difference, Schlosser said. “You don’t need new funding to run pilots, to show success of your broader plans.”


Smith echoed her advance, citing an idea her former boss, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, promoted during the recent economic downturn: “Scarcity breeds clarity.”

“Maybe you don’t need more money — maybe you need a tiny bit of money — but maybe instead of going for the larger thing, [figure out] what are the ways to move more agile-y, faster and then sort of as a step to show that path” to iterate toward the larger idea, she said.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos didn’t start the company as an Internet marketplace that sells pretty much anything. Rather he started with the small goal of becoming the go-to online bookstore, Smith said. Agencies with tight budgets, she said, should imitate that model.

“I think the freedom to iterate is really important,” Smith said. “Because in the iteration, maybe there’s failure … maybe the thing you have isn’t right, and instead of having built this whole huge thing, you have something” to evolve from.

Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing.

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