Paving the Way
"As pioneers of digital transformation in the federal government, the General Services Administration continually evaluates and adopts advanced technologies that help accelerate operational effectiveness and improve mission impact. In 2010, GSA was the first federal agency to move email to the cloud with Google, and achieve their initial goals to modernize the agency’s collaboration and productivity tools, scale operations more effectively and keep IT costs under control. These changes have not only allowed the agency to set an example for other federal entities seeking guidance on digital transformation initiatives, but has also bolstered initiatives aimed at improving cybersecurity and employee satisfaction.”
—Shannon Sullivan, Director of Federal, Google Cloud
Sometimes nice guys finish first.
As the chief information officer for the General Services Administration, David Shive doesn’t manage government’s biggest technology portfolio. He doesn’t run its most complex technical enterprise. Yet Shive nonetheless wields outsized influence across a federal enterprise that’s undergoing a rapid and dramatic revolution.
GSA may be best known the federal government’s landlord and its biggest central purchaser, but its technology leadership touches every corner of the federal sector. That means its CIO is uniquely positioned to demonstrate new business models and technologies and, once proven, to help roll out those innovations to the rest of government.
If GSA is the government’s central technology proving ground, then Shive is its Chief Test Officer. His goal: Identify challenges, find the best solutions, then put them to the test. If the technology is successful, build on that success; if it fails, chalk it up as a lesson learned and move on. Fast.
GSA's History as the Federal Testing Ground
“We're the purchasing agents of the federal government,” Shive says, leaning back from an immense maple table on the top floor of GSA’s headquarters at 18th and F Streets in Washington, D.C. “People buying technology would ask us pretty regularly, ‘this thing we can buy through your acquisition vehicle ... How do we know it can work?’”
The answer, more often than not: We can show you.
Customers don’t want to be guinea pigs, Shive says, “So we started a long time ago trying this stuff out.” GSA was the first federal agency to connect every workstation to the internet, for example, something that’s an absolute requirement now but at the time was a radical departure into unknown territory. It’s been at the forefront of adoption at every stage of the information technology revolution ever since, especially the government’s rapid adoption of commercial cloud technologies.
As an early adopter, GSA embraced cloud email and enterprise-wide cloud services long before the concept was accepted as mainstream. If putting the Internet on every desk in the 1990s seemed radical, imagine what it was like telling agency leadership it was time to outsource its primary means of communication. Could commercial vendors be trusted? Were they secure? Could they deliver on government’s specific requirements?
“The idea was, let's take a look at something that everybody uses — mail collaboration systems — do a good job on that and then earn the right to be able to do more work to consolidate,” Shive says. Back then, GSA was managing 17 or 18 mail systems, each with its own servers and technicians. Spam filtering and maintenance get getting harder. Maybe email didn’t need to be a core GSA capability; maybe a cloud vendor could deliver better service at a lower cost.
GSA’s then-CIO, Casey Coleman, was willing to give it a try. “So they said, ‘Let's test it out on ourselves,’” Shive says.
GSA partnered with Google to pilot Gmail as an enterprise service, and Unisys to help manage the integration. “They tested it on all the techies first,” Shive says. Together, they worked out the bugs and kinks, figured out the particular challenges posed by government users. “Then, once they felt comfortable,” he says, “ It was, ‘OK! Let’s do this. Let’s consolidate the whole play.’"
It worked – better than anyone could have predicted. And that paved the way for a much broader appreciation of how commercial cloud solutions could revolutionize federal IT management.
The Perfect Pilot in IT Modernization
With less than 12,000 employees, GSA is small enough to be flexible yet still large enough to prove technologies can scale to the needs of large agencies. It may not have 40,000 people like Commerce, or hundreds of thousands like the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense, but it’s big enough to make the case.
GSA Photo Gallery, David J. Wheeler Federal Building.
After all, GSA is among the world’s biggest real estate management businesses and largest automotive fleet manager. So, why shouldn’t it be the world’s biggest tech testbed?
“We're big enough that the things that we try out are meaningful to others,” Shive says.
"We’re big enough to prove something can scale for a larger agency or across the federal enterprise. But if things don't work out — and when you pilot or test things, things not working out can be a good outcome, as well — we’re small enough that we haven't wasted hundreds of millions or billions of dollars,” he adds.
Of course, back in 2011, Gmail wasn’t quite what it is today. “It provided maybe 70 percent of the functionality necessary just for email,” says Shive, who joined GSA at the tail end of that transformative change. And back then, email was all GSA was really trying to prove. “The collaboration and document management capabilities were not really the primary focus back then. They became the focus later on, but it was mostly just email and some storage at first.”
Flexibility Is Top of Mind for GSA Modernization
Back then, security and reliability were the biggest concerns. But these days, when customer agencies talk about cloud, their biggest worry is often vendor lock-in. Shive sees those worries as overblown.
“People who are overly concerned with vendor lock-in are ignoring history,” he says. “General Motors used to be the biggest automotive manufacturer in the world.” Now GM ranks fourth in global sales, behind Japan’s Toyota, Germany’s Volkswagon and Korea’s Hyundai/Kia.“The perceived best-in-breed is rarely there indefinitely. There is always innovation, there is always transformation, and something will come along to unseat the leaders.”
For agency leaders, that means ensuring there are exit doors attached to every cloud on-ramp, but it doesn’t mean they should wait or delay.
GSA builds partnerships with vendors but maintains independence and flexibility. “That safeguards us,” he says. “Our acquisitions and how we operate reflect that. For example, I can move cloud workloads around between clouds and on-prem at will — seamlessly, with no troubles.”
CIOs need to be “very intentional” about flexibility. “That’s the role of the CIO: to be thinking a couple of steps ahead,” Shive says. “That’s why you don’t see us doing super long engagements anymore. That locks you into pretty stale thinking sometimes.”
GSA on the Bleeding Edge
Stale is not how GSA sees itself or its technology. After that initial foray with Gmail, it wasn’t long before the agency started expanding into other Google services – and other cloud services from other cloud vendors.
“We picked a good partner in Google,” Shive says. “Picking a trusted partner on a large enterprise thing is one of the key contributors to success in doing a thing right.”
That goes for the solution vendor and the integrator hired to help manage the migration. For GSA, Unisys’ participation was critical, because it had done similar migrations before. “They knew not only the hard technology of migrating from legacy email systems to a cloud-based email system, but also the nuanced things that separate success from failure,” Shive says. Things like “organizational change management, document control, security, workforce rescaling and retraining so that you can properly support your new environment.”
Enterprise-scale migrations are daunting throughout the enterprise. The words “new system” can send shivers through the workforce. Ensuring trust between IT and its internal customers was crucial. Having already tested the system internally, and having brought on an experienced partner, “We were able to turn and face our customers and say, ‘Listen, we’re not making this up as we go along. We have some really good thinking from people who have been down this road before, and we're employing that,’” Shive says.
“This was not IT doing a thing to the business,” Shive recalls.
“This was a team of business people, technologists, and acquisition people all working and marching towards a common goal: To move to a platform that was nowhere else in government,” he adds.
Email was just the start. Shive and the rest of GSA’s IT team wanted to push the envelope further. “One of the things I'm most proud of at GSA is we take the first move and risk on behalf of government,” he says. “We knew that [Google’s Cloud and email] system and capability was secure, but operating the federal government space creates some challenges. You're obligated to be able to say, ‘We’re controlling data contained in the system in a codified, federalized way,’ and be on the right side of policy and regulation. All of this is very different than, say, an individual person using email. Those requirements created a national opportunity for us to bolt on additional capability.”
After email came cloud storage, as well as sharing and collaboration tools, all tightly integrated with Google’s cloud services and designed to support GSA’s mobile workforce, most of whom do not have permanent office space and instead rey on a “hotelling” concept that lets them reserve desks, conference rooms and other spaces when they need it — and work remotely when they don’t.
Shive says: “Since this is now kind of federalized capability, why wouldn't we look at collaboration? Why wouldn't we look at home drive storage for individual users? Or, why wouldn't we look at document sharing and office automation? All that's resonant in the Google platform, just like it would be resonant in Office 365 and others like that.”
GSA’s drive into the cloud wasn’t only built on Google apps. Using Google for mail and other collaboration needs proved the concept, making it easier to look at other cloud offerings to solve a wealth of problems. “We had hundreds and hundreds of applications to help us run the business,” Shive says. But many of those were duplicative and the IT shop knew there were other ways to save money, get more efficient, and improve performance — if they could convince staff to go along.
It turned out that wasn’t so hard. “We got such good outcomes moving to a digital, cloud-based solution for mail and collaboration stuff,” Shive says, that it was only a short leap to look at back-office workflows and automation.
Cloud Playbook Takes GSA Modernization to the Next Level
Having established a playbook for replacing local and custom applications with commercial cloud-based solutions, the process became easier and easier. “You take a look at a vast portfolio of capabilities you’re supporting inside the institution,” Shive explains. “You assess where duplication exists, find the best practice, centralize on that best practice. You immediately get efficiencies; you save money, reduce complexity, things like that. Then you say, ‘OK, what's the transformation play?’"
David Shive, CIO, General Services Administration. AMELIA SHULER
The payoffs were huge.
“Cybersecurity goes up. Usability goes up. Mobility improves. Satisfaction scores go up. Costs go down,” Shive says. “Our budget is down 17.8%.”
User satisfaction surveys continue to ring up great results. “Last year we reached a high watermark of 89.7%,” he says proudly. “Frankly, Google and Apple would be proud of those numbers. This year’s numbers are just in and even better: we hit 91 percent satisfaction. And that’s surveying every single employee and contractor in the GSA enterprise.”
Shive is under no illusions as to why his scores are so high. Like most modern-day solutions, the answer to this question is also in the cloud. “One of the levers that make those numbers as good as they are is because we increasingly look like the commercial space in how we present technology,” Shive says. “When they don’t present that environment of incremental improvement over an extended period of time, [employees] are frustrated by it.”
Leveraging commercial software enables GSA to make use of continuous improvement/continuous development efforts native to cloud platforms. Whether it’s G-Suite or something else, developers are continuously rolling out improvements. That means IT doesn’t feel pressure to add new custom capabilities, which ultimately bloat costs and evolve into maintenance headaches.
This gets to the heart of David Shive’s philosophy as a CIO: Make IT invisible. Gmail and Google’s G-Suite has helped do that.
“Every brain cycle that employee is paying attention to technology rather than the business that their doing is a moment wasted in productivity,” Shive says. “The best technology is technology that is completely transparent, where they can focus all of their time and energy not calling the help desk, not cursing their machine, not cursing the application and saying those 30 steps should be done in 5 steps, but instead focusing all of their time and attention on the business process that they're charged with doing. So, we focus on making that a reality.”
This requires a balance between driving innovation and letting the business lead the way. “Earlier in my career, I probably spent too much time trying to influence the business,” Shive says. “Then I flipped too far in the customer service standpoint by just giving the customers kind of whatever they want.” The problem was that sometimes the customer didn’t really know what they needed, “and sometimes the thing they wanted was not the best thing for them.”
The right play, Shive says, “is being kind of right down the middle, where instead of [IT] being the tech adviso, we are business partners.” IT leaders are evolving into solution engineers, Shive says, and business owners know IT has something to offer. “They call IT and say, ‘The answer may not be IT, but it quite possibly could be IT, so I want you in the room.”
Meanwhile, the pace of change is quickening, Shive says. “The government used to be very static, not a lot of change,” he says. “But there's change foisted on us sometimes by administration changes, sometimes by shifting business priorities that are organic to 21st-century business. That pace of change is very, very rapid. Having IT there, working alongside business to help them iterate to better business outcomes very quickly, with the use of technology, is the right thing to do.”
The numbers tell the story. At GSA, pursuing the cloud with thoughtful, business-directed problem solving and a relentless focus on performance and efficiency has paid off with huge savings and soaring user satisfaction.
Performance will vary, Shive warns, “but the roadmap is out there.” The key? Just get started.