In recent months, I’ve waxed, at times, a bit philosophical about how federal government agencies can drive IT modernization efforts in an era of uncertainty and tight budgets. However, it turns out that one of the hardest parts of IT modernization is building a work culture that supports new processes and new ways of getting things done.
There are many analogies – from Moneyball to Henry VI, Part II – that can help me make the case that creating the right culture is an essential part of the IT modernization process. For most federal CIOs, much like Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, hiring the right type of talent often means finding “players” who may be undervalued in the commercial IT marketplace but have the right set of skills to be successful in the federal government arena. For Beane, the measures of success were on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The typical federal CIO needs to build a team of generalists who are comfortable with change and can adapt quickly to new mission requirements. You hire generalists; you contract for specialists.
This certainly seems like an argument for hiring Millennials, but it truly isn’t a matter of birth date and generational identity. It’s more a matter of work philosophy. It’s the mindset that embraces DevOps agility over slow, siloed waterfall work flows; it’s the mindset that understands why moving to the cloud is essential, and why having everything as a service is vital to mission success. And, it’s the mindset that understands that the mission is changing as fast as the technology that makes delivering on the mission possible. Many of the tools that will make the delivery of government services successful in the next few years have not even been invented yet.
There have already been various approaches suggested for how to help existing federal IT workers adapt to this new era of rapid change. Some have suggested sabbaticals – both from Silicon Valley to the federal government and from the federal government to Silicon Valley – to help inculcate ‘tech values’ into the public sector. Meanwhile, others have offered ideas like a cyber ROTC to skill-up areas of particular need. There’s even been the suggestion that procurement officers, must have private sector experience in order to continue to reduce acquisition times from years to months.
In and of themselves these suggestions aren’t really all that new. When I was serving in the Army, there was a program to embed military acquisition personnel in corporations working on key projects to ensure that specifications were lining up with use cases, for example. More recently the U.S. Digital Service has offered rotations into different agencies and sabbaticals to the private sector for employees to focus on refreshing skills and acquiring new perspectives. DHS currently has a similar program for federal employees, as well as a program that embeds commercial sector employees in the agency to work on programs their companies are unlikely to bid on.
However, it’s not just the acquisition of new perspectives that federal workers need to become comfortable with; it’s the upending of the acquisition process itself. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, there is an oft quoted line that goes, ”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The intent being, that if you want to create a new system, you have to first do away with those who protect the old. Much like the lawyers referenced in the play– the ones that instill order and defend protocol – contracting teams have long ensured that the process is followed, stated needs meet requirements and contracts are awarded without prejudice. Unfortunately they oftentimes seem to do this with little concern for, or at least little ability to mitigate, the adverse impact of long, drawn out procurements.
Recently, though, high level officials in the Department of Homeland Security, including Continuous Diagnostic and Mitigation Program Manager, Kevin Cox, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Deputy CISO, Shane Barney, have shared how their teams have been applying agile development principles to procurement. Simply put, while there is a genuine need for due diligence to avoid contract disputes, federal agencies need to be able to bring new IT solutions into the agency quickly before they become obsolete.
As Barney noted at a recent event: “USCIS just held an industry day two weeks ago where we literally sat and said, ‘Hey guys, here are all the contract vehicles we are going to put out in the next year. Ask us questions, tell us what we are missing,’…But the agile contract that we have been doing has been based on conversations with the industry so that we know when we put that contract out there, we can get a rapid return.”
The government of the future needs continuous innovation. Agencies want to innovate while they modernize their IT operations. That requires IT, program, and procurement professionals with a broad set of skills, including the ability to traverse different organizational cultures and the desire to bring in and integrate principles that drive change each and every day.