Government Needs Tech-Savvy Leaders to Succeed, Says Outgoing OMB Chief

OMB Director Shaun Donovan discusses President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget. OMB Director Shaun Donovan discusses President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget. Susan Walsh/AP

Federal agencies without tech-savvy senior leadership will not succeed in carrying out their missions, warned outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan in his White House exit memo.

If agencies don’t continue to recruit “a critical mass” of top officials with a “high tech IQ” who are intimately involved in policy-setting and execution, their odds of successfully modernizing are “zero,” the OMB director said.

“It has become as essential to have technologists in the room as it is to have legal counsel,” stated the former Housing and Urban Development Department secretary. “It is difficult to think of any major agency responsibility – whether it be responding to Ebola, delivering services to veterans, formulating transportation policy, etc. – that would not benefit a great deal from the application of modern technology expertise,” Donovan wrote, underlying the passage for emphasis.

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Deputy secretaries with lots of “TQ” are “optimal,” Donovan recommended, with the next best option being a technology-fluent assistant secretary/undersecretary for management. Chief information officers need to be similarly skilled in IT operations, but they also need to be good managers, working effectively with leaders across the agency to modernize the organization’s approach to technology infrastructure and service delivery, the memo stated. “It is vital that deep tech expertise be no more than one step removed from the agency secretary (or equivalent),” he added.

Donovan, like Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert, is known within the Obama administration for elevating the use of data and other concrete metrics in federal program management. His comments on senior leaders with IT experience and aptitude were included in a 17-page discussion titled “Toward An Ever Better Digital Government,” an attachment to his official White House exit memo.

Federal IT legacy systems have been at the root of several high-profile cases of agency mismanagement over the last decade, from the patient wait-times scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department to numerous cybersecurity breaches across government. Any new management agenda must take into account how the government continues to use technology to better deliver goods and services to the American people.

Donovan’s memo focused heavily on the administration’s efforts to modernize government IT through initiatives such as the U.S. Digital Service and the tech group 18F, as well as strengthening cybersecurity. OMB has “led the administration’s successful efforts to leverage technology and innovation to produce a smarter, savvier, and more effective government for the American people,” Donovan said. He also touted several other Obama management agenda items including cost-saving procurement strategies, reducing the government’s federal “footprint” in real estate, and more meaningful collaboration between the federal government and local communities.

President Obama asked 27 heads of departments, agencies and a handful of high-profile federal offices to outline their accomplishments over the last eight years. The agency “exit memos,” released on Thursday, represent the administration’s last major public relations push on its achievements, but they also provide insights into important issues and challenges the incoming Trump team will face.

Cobert, who arrived at OPM as acting director in 2015 after the agency’s massive cybersecurity breach exploded, discussed OPM’s efforts to elevate “the government’s role as a model employer” through various initiatives, including hiring more disabled workers and veterans; expanding federal telework; extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of federal employees; and improving USAJobs.gov, the federal government’s troubled application and hiring website.

In her exit memo, the former OMB official also called for comprehensive civil service reform, which the administration has supported for some time, “so that the government recruits, hires, compensates, trains, manages, and holds accountable its workforce in a way that is responsive to the evolving profile of the workforce and the changing needs of the American people in the 21st century.”

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