Agencies finally shedding the bad rap of being a technology laggard

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For decades, the federal government received a bad rap when it came to innovation. The perception of the government always trailing the private sector seeped into the entire culture of the federal community, from political appointees to employees to contractors.

In fact, early on during the Obama administration a senior official on the technology and management speaking circuit kept deriding the “state of federal IT.”

The official talked at conferences and events about how far behind agencies were in implementing the latest and greatest IT of 2010.

Now 11 years later, that same official, who works with the incoming Biden administration, may be surprised about how much has changed.

A new survey of federal chief information officers and interviews with agency technology leaders show the IT and innovation gap between public and private sector organizations has closed significantly, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies are enjoying the taste of new technology more often.

“Agencies are getting better at adopting new technologies, which in turn contributes to enabling the workforce as well as an increased ability to deliver on the mission,” stated the survey of federal chief information officers by the Professional Services Council and Attain. “Core services, business and mission are more interconnected, as are agencies and the citizens they serve. People inside and outside of the government IT community are paying more attention to technology as they see the value it offers. One respondent felt strongly that IT is viewed as a ‘go-to organization’ within their agency. Through innovation and change management, technology has transformed how people are working. That individual reiterated a comment made when discussing modernization, saying that government needs to move in the direction of innovation initiatives, adding that people are looking for more innovation.”

PSC and Attain interviewed 11 agency CIOs and other federal technology leaders between July and October 2020 about seven broad topics including the state of IT modernization, cybersecurity, the workforce and the pandemic.

People, relationships propelling agencies

Simon Szykman, the chief technology officer at Attain, said government may never move at the rapid pace of the private sector, but they are not lagging like they once did and are catching up more quickly than ever before.

“I think in the past there was a challenge of re-skilling the federal workforce that may have had skills that weren’t leading edge. I’m not sure the reskilling challenge has been solved, but the ability to bring new technologies in the form of knowledge that’s brought in with new people seems to be happening more readily than in the past. Maybe it’s something as simple as that retirement wave is starting to happen and creating room to hire new people, which is always a challenge,” Szykman said.

The people that Szykman may be referring to are those that came in with the U.S. Digital Service, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the General Services Administration’s 18F organization as well as the push by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to emphasize modernized acquisition initiatives.

While USDS and 18F were far from perfect during their first five or so years, their long-term impact on promoting innovation, new ways implementing IT and upskilling federal employees is clear.

The other reason, Szykman said, that came through in the survey, and buoyed by the pandemic, is the improved relationship with industry.

“I think the government is becoming more effective at learning about these technologies, what they can do and what they want to do with those technologies to really leverage the private sector capabilities,” he said. “The private sector capabilities are more agile, you can bring in new skills more quickly, and you can swap people with one skillset out for people with another skillset so there is a level of agility that the contracting ecosystem brings. I feel like the government is now capitalizing on that more effectively than they had in the past and part of the reason is the good working relationship between government and industry.”

GSA’s innovative contract

One example of that is the recent contract award by the General Services Administration to NCI Information Systems. The $807 million contract will support GSA’s Office of Digital Infrastructure Technologies (IDT) with technical expertise to move the government closer to industry leading practices in IT modernization, improving access and quality of services to internal customers and reducing delivery costs, according to a GSA spokesperson.

Erika Dinnie, the acting associate CIO for digital infrastructure technologies at GSA, said at a recent ATARC event that GSA constructed the contract differently than in the past, when it was a traditional support contract.

“This is designed to push down our operational costs and partner with our new contractor to introduce some of these innovative ideas and move to a digital organization and introducing innovation like artificial intelligence and robotics process automation (RPA),” she said. “We will be designing digital personas, for example, and using AI to develop those personas so we can get into predictive analysts so we can predict that some of the actions we are taking might result in these two or three options. It will help us make better decisions.”

GSA says it will use the contract to employ modern methodologies that introduce better alignment with our customer’s business needs and priorities in order to deliver business value and innovation.

Rick Holgate, a former CIO for the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now a senior executive partner for the public sector at Gartner, said the pandemic provided CIOs and others the “courage” not to be so risk averse.

“Zoom, the Defense Department’s Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) and many others were so urgently needed that endless foot-dragging and hand-wringing became impossible,” Holgate said. “The end-user expectations and pressure have become so intense as to be unavoidable and undeniable. Largely virtual/remote organizations have become a new normal in government agencies, operating much more akin to private-sector analogs; office space downsizing and reconfiguration is actively happening, rebalancing the portfolio of physical space and enabling technology.”

Progress made, more progress needed

The incoming Biden administration seems to want to pick up on this innovation theme. President-elect Joe Biden’s pandemic relief proposal seems to have the handwriting of former members of 18F and USDS all over it. Among the things it includes is $200 million for the Information Technology Oversight and Reform (ITOR) fund to help rapidly hire hundreds of cyber and engineering experts to support the federal chief information security officer and U.S. Digital Service.

But unlike what happened when the Obama administration took over where they set up 18F and USDS to address systemic IT challenges, the combination of time and the pandemic has moved the needle for agencies and for the Biden technology leaders.

David Shive, the GSA CIO, said at the ATARC event that while there is plenty still to do the IT, the innovation gap clearly has closed.

“I spend lot of time with private sector CIOs. When I’m talking with them and I talk about the GSA experience, it is more often for me to hear from them, ‘Wow, you are light years ahead of us,’ than it is not,” Shive said. “Now, it depends on the type of organization you are talking to. If you are talking to Mary’s plumbing shop, then we are light years ahead of them. If you are talking to Google or someone like that, then probably not. But by and large, when I’m talking to Fortune 100 company CIOs, there is certain parity with what government is doing, many of the issues that we face are similar and many of the successes that we had in government, those CIOs are still trying to solve within their organizations.”

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