The Digital Service with Steve VanRoekel

Steve VanRoekel spent some three years as the federal Chief Information Office. He has now moved on to serve as chief innovation officer at USAID assisting with the administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak. In one of his last interviews as federal CIO, Steve joined me on The Business of Government Hour to reflect on his tenure, discuss how federal agencies are delivering smarter information technology (IT) services, his efforts in creating the Digital Service, what agencies are doing to emphasis value in federal IT investments, and how agencies are using data driven reviews to enhance IT performance. The following is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

What does the federal CIO actually do?

The official title is the administrator of the Office of Electronic Government. Though it sounds rather antiquated, this is a statutory title and with it goes specific duties. This office help agencies formulate their technology spend, focusing on how we are going to spend the roughly 82 billion dollars a year on technology across the federal government. We’re involved on the budget and the execution side of this effort. We also do a lot of work with Congress in shaping the how best to spend the budget allocations, identifying smart ways to use technology, and how best to implement of technology.

We also are also involved in shaping government-wide IT policy. How are we thinking about enacting new ways of doing IT within government; how to pursue open data, cyber security, cloud computing, and innovation.

What were your top say three challenges that you faced in your position?

I came to the administration from the private sector. Having this perspective shapes the way I see the challenges being faced in federal IT.

  1.  Challenge 1: Pace of Technological Change and Government Culture. The culture and systems in government aren’t set up to keep pace with that dynamic change in technology. This is a big challenge on thinking about how government can better keep pace with technology trends.
  2. Challenge 2: Government Attracting the Best Talent. Along with keeping up with the pace of technological change, the government must find ways to attract and hire the best technical people…so how government can be competitive in this space is a really big challenge.
  3. Challenge 3: Government Budget Cycle and IT. The government budget cycle also presents a significant challenge when attempting to implement technology in a somewhat turbulent environment. The three significant challenges centers around the timing of how budgets are done, the pace of technology, and the federal agency’s ability to hire the right talent to do technology.

What has surprised you the most since coming into government?

The thing that surprised me the most coming into government was the difference between politics and government. When you’re on the West Coast and you’re watching the news you assume that everything you’re seeing on these new outlets is government. Really what they’re reporting is politics. When you get to government you finally realize that there are these dedicated, hardworking, smart people — independent of who is sitting in the White House – that are tirelessly working to produce results for the American people. It’s really astounding. It was an incredibly eye opening experience for me to kind of see that then think about how are we harnessing that talent to go get results in the area of technology.

Would you outline for us the vision for smarter IT agenda?

Well smarter IT delivery is first and foremost about effectiveness. How are we driving the effectiveness of the programs that we enact? How are we meeting the core mission of our agency and the objectives that mission defines through the smart use of technology?

What about OMB’s portfolio stat reviews? How did these reviews result in savings? What does the next phase look like?

Portfolio stat was really designed as a mechanism to (1) in a very data driven way gather information about an agency and really shine a light on things that need to be improved for them through these key performance indicators that are sort of built into portfolio stat. (2) It’s really about both a face-to-face aspect. We sit down once a year with the deputy secretary of the agency and all the C level functions and have a very honest conversation about where they are. We also design portfolio stat to be evolutionary, so we wanted it every year to change and to evolve to keep pace with where the agency wants to go. There’s still agencies out there that have more than one email system and we’re still working with them on kind of bringing them to where they need to be. There’s others that have consolidated, done a great job and where we kind of moved down the value chain and we’re talking more deeply about things.

Picking up on the work of the agencies, and in particular how technology and innovation is being leveraged to change the citizen’s experience with government to meet the mission and the needs of citizenry. What is the administration’s the digital strategy? How does the creation of the Digital Service factor into this overall effort?

We recently announced the creation of a new capacity within my office called the Digital Service. The Digital Service, which is being led by a Mike Dickerson who comes from a very impressive career in the private sector and also helped with fixing healthcare.gov. The services really provides an example of how a very small number of people can come into government, working side by side with agencies, can change the context and environment in which they work to produce results.

 One of the biggest efforts for the administration has been around open government and particularly making data accessible and usable. Could you explain to me why opening data or making it more readable or accessible spurs innovation? What does the next iteration of data.gov look like?

Data is just incredible. It’s the new treasure trove. It’s the new raw ingredient in natural resource of really the 21st century. Thinking about the future of this country and how we make decisions, how we do different things in keeping us safe, secure and educating us and everything else I think will be driven by data and so we’re at the tip of the iceberg on where data is going to go and I believe where the private sector can take advantage of open government data to drive not only benefit but economic value for our country.

How do you prepare for new challenges and be successful?

I have this rather weird discipline that I’ve adopted. I don’t know where it came from, but when I’m faced with a new challenge, I have a new job or I’m launching a new effort or in the case of the private sector there’s a new product, on day one of the effort I would write the press release for the last day. I would write a draft kind of vision press release I’d call it. It would tell me what I wanted to accomplish by the time I finished that job, or in the case of a product, what I wanted that product to be about.

What that helped me do is not only think about the objectives and how we were going to get there, but more so it kept the discipline around the urgent versus the important. We end up spending a lot of our day dealing with urgent things and we take our eye off the ball. You have to manage your plate and think about how you’re driving your team and your effort and the people around you to go get that objective done. For me, crafting a vision press release, which by the way I never share with anyone, helps me think about what’s that three or four things that I want to go get done and am I spending enough time on focusing on those things.

What advice would you have for someone thinking about a career in public service?

The impact you can have in government to drive positive outcomes for Americans or people around the world is just unlimited. It’s thinking about how do we harness our resources? How do we harness technology? How can we be really smart about implementing the work of government to reach and maximize that impact? That’s why I’m here and when I talk to tech people, when I talk to other people about coming to join the government it’s the thing that lights the fire in them too to think about joining and coming on board.

I invite you to download and listen to my complete interview with Steve VanRoekel on The Business of Government Hour so you get a sense of Steve’s insights as he move on to a new challenge at USAID.

Image courtesy of commerce.gov.

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