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The New Age of Leadership in Government IT

What does it take to be a leader in the current government information technology (IT) landscape? That’s the question Mark Schwartz has been exploring for some time now.

In his new book, “A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility,” Schwartz broke down the pros and cons of IT leadership roles and how they should change in the future. As the former Chief Information Officer at the Homeland Security Department’s Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), he holds first-hand experience as an IT leader, and he discussed it with Christopher Dorobek on a recent episode of the DorobekINSIDER.

With methods like Agile, Lean and DevOps, government has begun to reassess how IT can advance an agency’s objectives through skillful technology procurement and implementation, he said. But that doesn’t mean all current IT leaders are using these approaches and acting as efficiently as they could be.

“In my experience in the government, and in my experience in the private sector before that, I saw certain patterns of IT and IT leadership that seemed to be getting in the way of really taking advantage of what the Agile world offers us,” Schwartz said. “The CIO community was very well aware of Agile approaches for delivering capabilities but hadn’t really thought how Agile approaches change what a CIO is, and what it means to lead IT.”

Schwartz sees the current IT climate split into two parties: that of the Agile, Lean and DevOps teams and that of the CIOs and other IT leaders. When he worked as a CIO, he saw the two moving in opposite directions.

Generally, Schwartz said, when Agile, Lean or DevOps teams try to deliver IT, they face impediments — that’s the nature of the process. But rather than wish for leadership to stand out of the way, these teams would prefer leadership to act as a frontrunner, removing obstacles so they can achieve their goals.

Above all, he said, it’s important that IT leaders embrace a braver approach. Not every risk will yield a successful result, but a fear of failure should not win out over the potential for progress, regardless of scrutiny from the press, the public or other branches of government.

CIOs in 2017 and beyond should move past the idea of an IT organization acting as a simple contractor to an agency. Rather, Schwartz said, a CIO should question whether he or she can create guardrails or a platform that will help those outside the IT organization to work more efficiently.

This refined approach emphasizes the discovery of requirements by investigating, collecting data and trying different methods out, to see how they work in production.

The new approach to IT development requires CIOs to have the courage to own project outcomes and risk taking, he said. “When you take a risk, you might not succeed. And it takes real courage to go ahead anyway, and to know you did the right thing, even if the result isn’t what you wanted in the end. To me, IT leadership is really about courage at a very fundamental level.”

It’s in this capacity that the modern-day CIO can, as Schwartz says, earn a seat at the table. In conjunction with taking a more proactive role in an organization’s mission, the CIO will take more ownership of the objectives themselves. This more integrated approach to tackling goals could make agencies significantly more effective, Schwartz said.

“What you’re doing is … experiments to gather information that helps you make a better decision, so that you’re taking less risk [in the future],” Schwartz said.

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