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Obama’s Victory Speech: Why Change and Forward is Not Enough for Government IT

By Andrea Di Maio | November 08, 2012 | 0 Comments

smart governmentshared services in governmentopen government datacloud
  • Like many people around the world, I listened to the US President’s speech after his victory at the last election. I found one sentence particularly inspiring:

“America is not about what can be done for us. It is about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government”.

For somebody like me, living in a country so full of history and so incapable of climbing out of a deep economic and ethical crisis. these words are exactly what I would like to hear from one or more of our politicians. I do sincerely hope that some of them were moved by Obama’s speech too.

Obama’s words have an interesting meaning also for those working with and around technology who will keep supporting the government in the next term of his administration.

Obama’s first term has been one of change and vision for what concerns technology. Young CIO and CTO, groundbreaking initiatives, pushing the boundaries on social media, open data, cloud, transparency. Executive changes and the proximity of the election have slightly slowed their pace and shortened the timeframe. Now, with four years to go, it is time to pick the IT battles he and his staff want to win.

As many say, the second term will be about execution. But what it is important to reflect upon is the nature of this execution.

On the one hand there might be more mandates (after cloud first, shared first and future first, how about data first or user first?) compound by innovation centers, pilot projects and presidential fellows to initiate change and carry it forward. On the other hand there is the much tougher issue of embedding a culture of innovation into each and every agency. The success of Obama’s “change” and “forward” messages in government IT will depend on how timely and effective the shift from one hand to other takes place.

This does not mean that the whole-of-government CIO and CTO roles, or the existence of a digital services innovation center – like the one instituted by the Digital Government Strategy – should be criticized or even eliminated.The point is how to move agencies toward embracing more radical change at a moment in time when they face significant challenges in terms of cost optimization and legacy modernization.

The work done by technology pundits close to the President should develop in depth rather than in breadth, focusing on few problems, few agencies, few technologies, and aiming at getting the job done and move on. This calls for a different relationship between the whole-of-government CIO and CTO and their counterparts in different agencies, and an asymmetry in how they operate, potentially closer to some agencies rather than to all of them.

It is quite possible that executive changes at some stage may be beneficial, and so would be changes to the mandates of both OMB and GSA in this area.

As far as the CIO role, after spending some quality time in Barcelona with the UK government CIO, Andy Nelson, I believe that having the whole-of-government CIO keeping a foot, and some stakes, in a large department or agency would strengthen his or her role and effectiveness. Andy was and still is the CIO of the Department of Justice, which is a quite complex organization, where technology plays a key role and stakeholder management is particularly complex. Some may look at this as a distraction, diverting the CIO’s attention away from enterprise-wide issues to focus on his or her department. My take is that having somebody in charge who needs to take his or her own medicine is a good thing. In any case, even if a dual responsibility is not desirable or achievable, the government-wide CIO would benefit from a deep experience in a large and complex government organization.

As far as the CTO role, while it is good to have somebody stirring the pot and pushing the boundary, that person should spend more time looking at concrete technology transfer issues rather than just seeding innovation. Once more, this should not be a black-or-white decision. Pursuing innovations emerging in the next four years remains important, especially considering the rate at which technology changes: but playing in the agencies, rather than outside, transferring a culture of innovation to his or her colleagues across government so that they do not need to be continuously pulled toward innovation, is probably more important.

The recently established innovation center should aim at a more direct impact on selected agencies. Going forward, It may become a virtual organization, composed by individuals who actively pursue innovation in their respective agencies, rather than a physically and organizationally distinct entity.

Should any executive change take place, I hope that demographics won’t play a huge role. There is an implicit assumption around the world that only young people, with entrepreneurial background, can make change happen. While I agree that they are certainly excellent at initiating change, I am not so sure about their track record at making it happen. They tend to be as dynamic as they are impatient, and often ignore or downplay the complexity of the public sector environment, dismissing its reluctance to change as fear or ignorance rather than appreciating the constraints of accountability. People with such profile, irrespective of how brilliant they are, will not be staying for as long as it takes to see real change: most are on a career path, and they have much to lose in standing still and being perceived as insufficiently active. More seasoned individuals, with a deeper understanding of government complexity and closer to the end of their career, may actually take bolder and more effective steps than their younger counterparts, as they have nothing to lose.

This is not to say that the current President’s team is inadequate, on the contrary. Their prior experience inside and outside government and what they have done and are doing in their respective roles is commendable. Steven Van Roekel, Todd Park, Dave McClure, Gwynne Kostin and many others at OMB, OSTP and GSA make a great team. However they have to reassess how they and their organizations can deliver the best and more sustainable value during the second presidential term.

Obama’s motto in his first campaign was “change”. In this past campaign he has used the term “forward”. In IT the real challenge is:

  • initiate change
  • move it forward and…
  • … make it stick

First bullet: ticked. Second bullet: started. But who’s looking after the third one?

And this is where Obama’s sentence from his speech becomes so important. CIOs in federal agencies cannot wait for somebody else to make change happen for them. Even if the government-wide CIO and CTO roles will focus more on specific agency problems, it will be up to those who work in those agency to carry on change and make it stick.

It will be hard and frustrating at times. But necessary. Better, indispensible.

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