Who Owns Modernization?

Editor’s note: GovLoop interviewed current and former government employees about limiting beliefs they’ve seen throughout their careers in public service. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation in the words of one interviewee. 

Brian Whittaker, former Executive Director of 18F, former Deputy Director at IT Centers of Excellence, GSA

Brian Whittaker formerly served as Executive Director of 18F and Deputy Director at the IT Centers of Excellence, both of which are housed at the General Services Administration (GSA). Whittaker’s background centered on collaborating with agencies and partners to identify and prioritize their modernization initiatives, and to break down what’s at stake and view these efforts through a broader lens.

Limiting belief: Modernization lies at the doorstep of the chief information officer, and therefore the CIO is solely accountable.

The reality is: It takes many functions across an entire agency and department to make modernization a reality. When the headlines say, “Systems are failing,” and you look to your left and your right, who are you going to grab first? It is a natural impulse and a logical thing to call the CIO. But there are also underlying elements like the acquisition process and the human resources (HR) process. There are multiple areas where an IT project can be unsuccessful.

The consequences are steep: Consider the unemployment websites nationwide that were crashing at the start of the COVID crisis. Did the agencies running them acquire the proper tools? Did they have the people to develop the requirements for that tool? Did they have the appropriate skill sets to maintain those tools? A lot of our country is at risk. People aren’t able to get their benefits, and haven’t been able to for a long time. So we have to come together and understand that this is much broader than an IT problem.

Reframe the conversation: Depending on the agency or department or bureau, I think oversight of modernization should be pivoted to either a chief operating officer or deputy secretary. Those are the people who have oversight of enough groups to collaborate and prioritize.

What’s possible: Where I’ve seen IT modernization be most successful are at USDA [Agriculture Department] and OPM [Office of Personnel Management]. It was really a group of the CIO, the chief human capital officer, the head of acquisition and the program side all coming together to prioritize. At USDA, the secretary had an IT strategy in the form of a memo. When we came in from the Centers of Excellence, there was no confusion about why we were there. We had the memo. Everybody had the memo.

Advice to cut through red tape

For senior leaders: Come up with a mechanism to capture data and perspective, and prioritize where you start. Tap your chief data officer (CDO) and maybe your chief privacy officer and figure out how to implement a voice-of-thecustomer tool or even a voice-of-the-employee tool. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can hear from them about their burdens and pain points, and you can focus on those.

For aspiring leaders: Modernization’s right in front of you. It’s an opportunity to improve a process, to get a thing done faster, to delight the general public. Document your hack; document your best practices. Share those with your leaders. It can start with the people on the front line making something as simple as a process improvement that catches on and spreads across the entire bureau or agency.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s new guide, “Agency of the Future: Common Misconceptions Holding You Back and How to Break Free.” Download the full guide here.

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