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Federal Leaders Tout Big Ideas on Mission of Tech

It’s easy to get swept up by technology buzzwords. While there’s no doubt that Centers of Excellence (CoE) are all the hype or that the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act has revamped national efforts to upgrade IT systems, there remain fundamental questions about the government’s role in technology.

The Tech-Enabled Mission, hosted by Nextgov, pulled together chief information officers (CIOs) and program leaders for Thursday morning panels that centered on the purpose of government technology.

“Technology is the foundation of the mission,” said La’Naia Jones, Deputy Assistant CIO of the Intelligence Community, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The morning sessions covered recent changes to technology acquisition and the role of CIOs. Featured panelists included:

  • Gary Washington, CIO, Agriculture Department (USDA)
  • David Chow, CIO, Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD)
  • Kelly Olson, Acting Deputy Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service and Acting Director of Technology Transformation Services (TTS), General Services Administration (GSA)
  • Anil John, Technical Director, Silicon Valley Innovation Program, Homeland Security Department (DHS)
  • Joanne Woytek, Program Manager, Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement Program, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As is always the case, the surge of technology talk brought overarching questions about job security and job qualification. Government IT departments tend to be older, despite belonging to a youthful industry. However, Washington said his staff was ready to trail blaze.

“As a department, I found a lot of people were very enthusiastic and were team players in terms of being a part of the change,” said Washington, who oversaw the USDA’s pilot CoE program.

Panelists said government is in a unique position to drive innovation because the end goal is people, not profit. John said that in DHS IT acquisition, the government offers technology start-ups stability and financial independence in exchange for services.

However, government has to tread the line between risk and reward, as security compromises pose threats to national security – in addition to lost revenue and privacy. There was no consensus on a sweet spot in between.

“There are an awful lot of shiny tools out there, and it’s seductive,” said Mark Borkowski, Assistant Commissioner in the Office of Acquisition for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “But it’s not a tool problem, [and] it’s not a process problem. It’s a culture problem,” said Borkowski, who favors taking more calculated risks in innovating.

John and Borkowski disagreed on risk management strategies within their respective agencies. However, they found common ground on shared challenges.

Oftentimes, they said, start-ups can be reluctant to work alongside government agencies because of political differences. For example, under the new administration CBP has encountered increased resistance from Silicon Valley companies. Borkowski said that he understood the community but that the government had the responsibility to carry out public services that might not be popular.

Other times, recent government programs have been evaluated on popularity and user-friendliness. For services such as tax payment and public information, the goal is to reach as many people as possible.

“For our purposes, we’re really going to be focusing on customers,” Chow said about the new CoE project at HUD. “We’re not focusing as much on infrastructure.”

Olson, the first speaker of the day, said that the current administration has set the agenda to push IT modernization forward. She said that the Obama administration had made breakthroughs in IT as well.

“The best part about this is everyone is supportive,” Olson said. “It’s not really political.”

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