Obama’s Tech Team

The administration is full of executives with high technology IQs.

Techies now run much of government. And they're not the programmers in the IT shop.

The co-founder of a nonprofit that works on bridging the digital divide now advises the secretary of State. A former IBM vice president who focused on innovation as head of public sector strategy is the No. 2 executive at the Veterans Affairs Department. The secretary at the Homeland Security Department chose a former chief information officer as her chief of staff for management. The official in charge of General Services Administration outreach to the American public learned management theory while conducting audits on federal information technology programs at the Government Accountability Office. And John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, changed the agency's org chart to make sure his CIO will report directly to him and have broader responsibilities.

Many of these positions aren't typically held by people who are comfortable talking geek speak. But it's clear: President Obama's political appointees understand that the smart management of technology, not simply the tools themselves, can be a primary driver to improve how government operates-and even influence policy. Many inside and outside government say the Obama administration gets it, understanding that technology should be part of policy discussions because it powers innovation and performance, much like it does for businesses.

While the first Internet president has contributed to this high-tech management strategy, other factors might be as integral to what has amounted to a tectonic mental shift in how the government operates, say former federal executives and corporate contractors. Budget cuts are forcing agencies to get creative, and a new generation of wired (and wireless) workers is pushing even unwilling Luddites to learn how to blog and Tweet. In addition, the Obama team tacitly recognizes that the Bush administration laid the groundwork for all this with its President's Management Agenda-reforms that rated agencies on expanding electronic government, among other things.

But Obama has given technology an even higher profile, pressuring agencies to be innovative and employ online tools to boost performance. Unlike past presidents, who rarely mentioned the word technology and frequently appointed nontechnologists to some of the most prominent CIO posts, Obama has placed in top-level executive positions people who have a management philosophy that is interwoven with technology.

"All too often [federal employees'] best efforts are thwarted because the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government," Obama said in a Jan. 14 speech to a group of his top appointees and corporate chief executive officers. "Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and their bedrooms than they have at the desks at their work."

Obama's pioneering online presidential campaign forever changed the way candidates will run for office and set the stage for the administration's unprecedented dependence on tech-savvy federal officials in policymaking and government operations. Many of the same people who crafted his platform became part of the presidential transition team's Technology, Innovation and Government Reform Policy working group that developed the administration's nascent policies.

"The ones they reach out to automatically get technology," says Olga Grkavac, executive vice president at the industry lobbying group TechAmerica. "It's a reflection of Obama, but also a reflection of our time. It's not the reason they were selected, but it's a qualification-you have to be tech-savvy."

High-Tech IQs Obama's administration is full of executives with high-tech IQs, and many are in roles that would be expected. Julius Genachowski, a key transition and campaign adviser, and a former executive for IAC/InterActiveCorp, an Internet conglomerate, formulates the nation's high-speed Internet strategy as FCC chairman. Transition working group member and one-time Virginia secretary of technology Aneesh Chopra is the nation's first federal chief technology officer. Vivek Kundra, former chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, is the federal chief information officer. And Beth Simone Noveck, author of the book Wiki Government (Brookings Institution Press, 2009), is deputy chief technology officer for open government.

Those positions call for strong tech backgrounds. But other executives in influential policy positions have a real tech bias, too. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona, chose her home state's chief information officer, Chris Cummiskey, to work as her chief of staff for management. Cummiskey influences decisions for the department's key functions, including budget, procurement, finance, human resources, technology and administration. Scott Gould, former IBM official turned deputy secretary at VA, says technology can make the department more accountable to veterans by providing better care and to the public by spending money more wisely.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hired Alec Ross to advise her and other State Department decision-makers on using technology to safeguard and spread democracy. "Secretary Clinton is the godmother of 21st century statecraft," says Ross, who founded the global nonprofit One Economy Corporation to bring Internet access to underprivileged areas. "It's my job to help bring things across a bridge, but it's a bridge that she built."

For example, Clinton believes it is critical to teach disadvantaged people worldwide how to use the Internet to prosper. The department is working with the Moroccan government to teach women technical skills in hope of strengthening democratic institutions and expanding economic growth.

Infusing management with a dose of technology isn't new to the private sector. For years, corporate colleagues have collaborated through wikis, or Web pages that anyone can edit. The commercial sector makes billions of dollars on smart phones and Web-based software that allow people to work and communicate anywhere and anytime.

Now the new feds, who have learned how to use these tools as corporate managers, want to apply the technology to government. "It's a natural evolution that's taking place in general," says Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council, a government contracting organization, and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform. "They are not only tech-savvy, but they are business management and business process experts," Soloway says. The emphasis on technology "may be as much a matter of bringing in really savvy management from the outside, where the embedding of technology has been so dramatic," he adds. "They are management-savvy."

That thinking is revolutionary for the federal government. The technological zeitgeist of the new leaders might be the biggest leap in management theory for any administration. For the most part, past administrations have been suspicious of technology, seeing it more as playing a supportive administrative role. But Obama has brought to the marbled halls of the federal government the idea that technology is part of boardroom discussions on agencies' strategies and policies. The new point of view is changing the traditional focus on building IT systems that support basic agency functions-to a focus on organizing information to help create better policy and outcomes for the public.

"This is finally becoming the era of information management," says Dave McClure, associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Communications at the General Services Administration. "That creates challenges for CIOs and nontechnology leaders to try to make sense of all the information they have."

McClure learned about how technology could influence government operations and outcomes during his 18-year career monitoring federal IT capital planning and investments at GAO. He later worked as an IT analyst for giant research firm Gartner. Obama appointed him to his GSA post in August 2009 to dramatically shift how government forms policies and to break down centuries' old bureaucratic operations. For example, GSA is consulting citizens and agency employees on how to overhaul USA.gov, the federal government's home page. "In today's environment, we're moving rapidly into what I would call citizen-driven government," McClure says. "We've got to go to citizens on their own terms. That's a very different proposition than in the past when we created Web sites and services and said, 'Come play on our sites.' "

No longer is it the CIO alone arguing that technology has the stature to change public services and government. It's now coming from department heads, according to Dan Chenok, a member of the president's transition team and a former OMB branch chief for information policy and technology. He now is senior vice president at IT services provider Pragmatics Inc. "It's not just a CIO issue," he says. "It's the secretaries [who] are using it to drive change."

What's Different

Today's federal executives see three critical pieces to bringing innovation to government by way of technology: set agency priorities; consider approaches to achieve the priorities, including the use of technologies; and ingrain the thinking and accountability in leadership to deliver results. "It's usually not the technology that's the hurdle, it's the business process," says DHS' Cummiskey. This strategy is in practice at VA, where Secretary Eric Shinseki and CIO Roger Baker last summer suspended 45 IT projects they believed needed to be reworked because they were behind schedule or over budget. The idea didn't come from Baker; it came from Shinseki. "The secretary had asked for a review of all of the IT projects before I got here, based on the failure of" a software application for scheduling patient appointments at VA hospitals, Baker says. "He was comfortable with a clearly dramatic approach to solving the issue. We would have gone months, if not years, without that leadership."

Much of Obama's faith in technology is rooted in the belief that it is the tool to make the government more accountable to not only itself but the public, and that means putting federal managers on the spot to perform. A memo he issued on his first day in office called on the chief technology officer to recommend steps every agency must take to disclose more information, collaborate with industry and involve the public in policymaking. The formal directive from the Office of Management and Budget lays out aggressive deadlines for appointing senior officials to oversee the quality of federal spending data online and releasing downloadable government statistics.

The administration has launched Web sites to offer the public a wider view of agency operations. Sites include Recovery.gov, which monitors stimulus funds; Data.gov, a warehouse of downloadable government statistics; and the IT Dashboard, which provides information on how well technology projects are managed. Obama also has sought public input on his decisions relating to jobs and health care through new media channels such as Twitter and live question-and-answer webcasts.

While the moves are intended to instill citizen trust, they also are having the internal effect of increasing accountability, says VA's Gould. Web sites and public feedback act like mirrors that reflect how the federal workforce is doing at its job.

But the flip side of online transparency is that the administration is showing the planet its mistakes, Gould adds. For example, administration critics say Recovery.gov's erroneous data on the number of jobs the stimulus package has created indicate that Obama's economic plan has failed.

The Fear Factor

No overhaul of bureaucracy comes without opposition. Perhaps one of the most unsettling changes the Obama administration is considering is cloud computing, the practice of renting IT tools and applications from another agency or company that delivers the services over the Internet. The goal is to consolidate common IT services that all agencies use, reducing the need to buy redundant systems or hire too many computer specialists. Cutting spending and jobs doesn't sit well with government employees who fear losing control over their data, equipment and even their livelihoods.

The idea also isn't popular with executives at federal vendors, who have made fortunes on the government spending heavily on IT. "If you're going to be horribly efficient with things like cloud computing, the people and the technology industry will have to go through some changes," says Jerry Mechling, faculty chairman of Leadership for a Networked World at Harvard University, a program aimed at helping decision-makers integrate IT and business strategies.

Obama's tech-centered appointees have a big job to convince mid-level federal managers to sign onto the president's technology and open government agenda, laid out in a December 2009 directive. The majority of federal managers, 62 percent, believe they should post more public data on agency Web sites, according to a 2009 Government Executive survey. But only 39 percent of mid-level managers said they were the ones responsible for making open government happen, noting Obama, Congress and Cabinet secretaries should be the drivers, the survey found. They also said cybersecurity concerns and a lack of proper technology at agencies will be a drag on any effort to reach out to the public. Such sentiments cause open government advocates to worry that Obama's push for agencies to use technology will struggle.

Kundra is aware that executives' reluctance to move beyond simply posting information on the Web makes it difficult to create managerial and policy changes.

"Where you run into resistance is somebody may have done something for the past 30 years and the processes have been laid out, and now they're being reengineered," he says."You don't want to just webbify your old processes."

Michael Peterson, former Air Force CIO and chief of warfighting integration, says while he reported directly to the secretary of the Air Force, he is skeptical that tech-savvy executives will rule government anytime soon. "I'm not as positive as I could be about this," he says. "Most of these agencies don't spend a lot of time growing these tech-savvy [people]. . . . It's not just about publishing things where you and I can go read them [on the Web]. It's really a change in the mind-set of how we do business."

Mechling says it is just a matter of time before federal managers are forced to operate innovatively.

The government now has to move in lock step with commercial innovation to satisfy citizens, Mechling adds. "One of the hoped for possibilities behind civic engagement as a new frontier for doing these things is that we generate a little bit more engagement for ideas that will keep the government closer to the way we do things in the rest of life," he says.

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