On Tuesday, Feb. 28th, the Potomac Officers’ Club hosted the Digital Transformation in the Federal Government breakfast event, bringing together established speakers from government and industry to discuss the state of information technology modernization. The keynote speakers were: Matt Lira, special assistant to the president, White House Office of American Innovation; Dr. David Bray, executive director, People Centered Internet; and Traci Walker, director of digital service procurement for the White House.
“[IT modernization is] a relay race more than a sprint … We do have very focused objectives we want to achieve over short time horizons for specific programs.”
Matt Lira, who spoke first, began by saying, “[IT modernization is] a relay race more than a sprint … We do have very focused objectives we want to achieve over short time horizons for specific programs.” He pointed out that IT modernization brings generational challenges, stemming from the rapid pace of innovation in the private sector. As Lira put it, even if the government completely modernized its IT systems right now, companies would come out with new products and technologies, meaning the public sector would always be struggling to catch up.
To contend with this, Lira calls for a new structure that will continuously modernize IT systems over time, which will require two key criteria. The first is a broad-based consensus on how we should proceed with digital transformation. To illustrate what he means, Lira invoked the continuity in Cold War policy over 50 years. “You had multiple administrations, you had multiple parties, you had multiple ideologies, multiple leadership styles … [But] we generally agreed on the successful strategy for how to win the Cold War peacefully,” he commented.
The second component is what he referred to as a “systemic alignment of interests” For defense, if a product is successfully monetized, according to Lira, then it’s successfully delivered. Often, the rewards come from an agency’s executive branch bosses or Congress, whose budgets get cut which disincentives government workers from modernizing their systems. Here, Lira discussed the role of the American Technology Council, which centralizes federal technology modernization requests and creates a forum for disagreements, as one body that can help achieve greater standardization. He also cited the need for targeted reforms on how government IT systems are monitored and discussed the desire for private sector input throughout the process.
“No longer can the U.S. put those [IT] investments in and assume it’s going to have a 10-year lead over anyone else. That lead is increasingly becoming nine months, six months, and in some cases with machine learning, we’re actually maybe operating with a negative lead … ”
The next keynote speaker, Dr. David Bray started off saying his role “is thinking about the people side of what’s necessary to make public service function … ” While federal IT modernization has always been an issue, Bray argues it has taken on critical importance given the “speed of change” in 2018. To that point, if a government organization carries out modernization, how long will it remain relevant? “No longer can the U.S. put those [IT] investments in and assume it’s going to have a 10-year lead over anyone else. That lead is increasingly becoming nine months, six months, and in some cases with machine learning, we’re actually maybe operating with a negative lead … ” said Bray. However, he believes that modernizing government IT systems is only part of the battle. As Bray put it, “the biggest challenge for what we do in government is how do we figure out services that bring together different people?” If we don’t use the internet to forge collaboration and only “play to our bases,” other nations will take over leadership in cyber, Bray warns.
The answer to IT modernization, involving new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, he went on, is not in the public sector, which recognizes that innovation must from the commercial sphere. While many algorithms have been around for decades, what’s new is the capacity for speed and scale – using cloud computing – to innovate and lead at an unprecedented level, Bray added. All that remains is for the private sector to take the helm as the public sector has forecast.
“ … make the end user the North Star … [which] means connecting your responses to how it’s going to improve the product … [for] the person that [it] serves.”
Following Bray, Traci Walker spoke about leading the White House’s digital services division, which brings in highly capable engineers, product managers, and user experience and design experts to manage IT requirements. “These aren’t roles that are traditionally found in government,” she noted. Walker highlighted the government’s difficulties with technology acquisition, stating that her department helps agencies procure new IT products and teaches them how to implement them. The goal, Walker said, is to increase the speed and quality of such acquisitions across the whole federal space. Speaking to the executives in the room, Walker imparted advice on the acquisition selling side: “ … make the end user the North Star … [which] means connecting your responses to how it’s going to improve the product … [for] the person that [it] serves.”
The next POC event, 2018 Border Protection Innovations and Technology Forum, will be held on March 22. Spots are filling up, so register today!