Former Federal CIO Tony Scott Talks MGT Act, Career Lessons

This Q&A is part of a new GovLoop series called “CIO Conversations.” Throughout 2018 we’ll feature conversational interviews twice a month with current and former federal, state and local chief information officers to get to know the people behind the titles. You’ll learn about the perks and challenges of their job, how they ended up in their current position, what’s top of mind for them, how they’ve rebounded from setbacks and more.

To kick off this series we sat down with former Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott. He’s been busy since leaving the White House in January.

Scott joined Squire Patton Boggs as Senior Data Privacy and Cybersecurity Advisor in September and sits on several advisory boards for big-name tech companies, including Google and Samsung. He’s also in the midst of launching a new project to help emerging cybersecurity ventures strategize, brand and market their products. Stay tuned.

We sat down with Scott at the Squire Patton Boggs office in D.C. to chat about the impending passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act (the president has since signed the MGT Act into law), CIO turnover in government and his career lessons.

GOVLOOP:  So what was your transition like coming from government back to the private sector? 

SCOTT: I spent about six or eight weeks just sort of unwinding, sleeping late and enjoying the benefits of that. But also behind the scenes I’ve been really focused on trying to get momentum going on modernizing government IT. A lot of the things I’ve been doing in my spare time is continuing to talk to people on the hill and staffers — people who have the ability to move these things along. I’m a big fan of the MGT Act. It’s one of the important steps that’ll help modernize IT in the federal government.

GOVLOOP: How closely do you feel that what we’re likely to see aligns with what you were thinking of initially?

SCOTT: I think it follows pretty closely. Originally, we asked for $3 billion, and we got a little less than that, but I’m OK with that. Even if we had gotten the $3 billion somehow, we would’ve started with some smaller projects to test the process and make sure we had all the kinks worked out of the implementation. I think with $500 million you can do that and not jeopardize the idea.  Then hopefully, with some success, you can go back and get more money later on, or recycle the money you have in different ways. And that was always a part of the design of this.

I think the big deal is breaking this annual appropriation cycle where you can start to get CIO’s and their teams thinking more strategically, thinking about the business case, engaging with the other leadership teams in the agency to come up with a broader strategy, versus the stop-start, stop-start turnover that we’ve been in.

GOVLOOP: Once the MGT Act becomes law, what do you think are the biggest challenges culturally and technologically that agencies are going to have to face?

SCOTT: The world of digitization is all about the customer. What does the customer want to do? What information do they need? So I was encouraging the CIO’s to think outside their agency, to look at common needs and common business cases. Case management is a great example. Today there are thousands of custom-built, one-off case management systems in the federal government. Instead of everybody modernizing their case management system and doing a lift and shift into the cloud, what we could do is say there’s a core case management capability that we can build one time in the cloud with an API that would let your agency customize it. But the underlying platform is still all the same basic nuts and bolts. That would be really powerful because then you could have much more efficient data interchange and a much better customer experience.

GOVLOOP: You’ve been on the inside. Do you think that is possible? Could it happen?

SCOTT: I think so. Part of what we intentionally did is said, ‘If we get the [modernization] fund going, let’s look for those use cases.’ Another one is grants. Grants are just a form of case management with a different flavor.

GOVLOOP: How has a past failure shaped you? What lessons did you learn?

SCOTT: I can give you an example from General Motors. The argument at the time was whether we should put Bluetooth in the car or not. We saw the Bluetooth spec coming along, but we’d also introduced a product called OnStar. The OnStar guys didn’t want to put Bluetooth in the car because they said it blew up our business case. If we put Bluetooth in, people would use their cellphones that are coming with Bluetooth chips in them. As a result of taking too long to decide, we were a year or two behind other car OEM’s [original equipment manufacturers] in putting Bluetooth in the car.

GOVLOOP: How did that experience shape you?

SCOTT: I was on the side arguing we should put Bluetooth in. But I didn’t realize at the time who I needed to go influence to really get that decision changed in the way that I thought it should. I thought I could naively go into a meeting and say, ‘Here are the facts,’ and that the decision would get made in the meeting. Well, in most organizations decisions get made well before you get into the meeting. There’s all kinds of seasoning of the steak that takes place well before the steak gets cooked. I learned that you have to go around, talk to a whole bunch of people, get their input and develop your arguments. It has to be a community decision. You have to pay attention to those things or you’re probably not going to be successful, no matter how good the idea is, especially in government.

GOVLOOP: How do we get more CIOs in government to not only come but to stay?

SCOTT: I’m not sure they should stay a really long time. I’d advocate for more than two years. I don’t know that you’re ever going to get to the place where you have 10, 15 or 20-year tenure in a role. But I would favor doing things to make sure we don’t have the kind of turnover that we have today. You could dig through a whole bunch of things like fixed-term appointments or incentives for good performance. I think it is important to have some sort of continuity over time. Corporations that have high turnover of executive staff generally don’t do well.  The ones that you see succeed have some tenure but also some constant refresh. And that’s a model that I like.

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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Glad you enjoyed it, Maryanne! I’m excited about this series, and I’ve already learned a lot. The NYC CIO would be a great fit. I will definitely reach out. Thanks!