OMB turns to the people-solution to fix troubled IT programs

Jason Miller discusses the President's Management Advisory Board meeting with Emily Kopp.

Jason Miller | April 17, 2015 7:49 pm

The Obama administration has spent a lot of the last five years talking about and experiencing some of the long-standing problems with federal technology. But the one area it hasn’t focused a lot of attention on is the people doing the work.

That is all changing under President Barack Obama’s second term management agenda.

Steve VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, detailed two specific initiatives under the agenda’s smarter IT delivery area to address the technical expertise of federal employees. One is around flexible hiring, and a second is trying another employee exchange program.

“Flexible hiring is really looking at, can we build more flexibility into the way we hire technologists and bring them in? It’s something we have today with lawyers. We have with cybersecurity experts and procurement officials. We are looking at, can we bridge that into the tech space?” VanRoekel said Friday during the President’s Management Advisory Board meeting in Washington. “We are running pilots today in a few targeted agencies to prove out the value of this right now.”

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As for an employee exchange program, VanRoekel said there are a few pilots where companies are offering employees on a two-month sabbatical to work on a specific program for the government. He said agencies are ensuring there are no conflicts of interest as they bring in these industry experts.

The employee exchange program is not a new idea. It was included in the E-Government Act of 2003, and the Defense Department tried a similar one in 2011. Neither program gained much traction in the government.

The Office of Management and Budget didn’t offer any details as to where the pilots are taking place or how many people they are trying to bring in under the direct hire authority.

Targeted recruiting

VanRoekel said another area that is focused on people is around targeted recruiting.

“This is where we get a cadre of people in a community together through the Digital Service, 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows and other agencies that are connected in these communities and cast a wider net, telling people out there that there are jobs available in the federal government. We’d love technologists to come in and work in this way,” he said.

These pilots come on the heels of the launch of the Digital Service Office in OMB, and the hiring of Mikey Dickerson as deputy CIO to lead that group. It also builds upon the Presidential Innovation Fellows, which inaugurated its third class of fellows Sept. 11, and the launch of the 18F at the General Services Administration.

VanRoekel said the Digital Service Office is running in pilot mode right now as well, and the administration requested funding to build it up in its 2015 budget request.

OMB said in its quarterly update on Performance.gov that the Digital Service Office is working on three pilot programs at the Veterans Affairs Department and the Homeland Security Department’s Citizen and Immigration Services.

“We’re encouraged by the conversations we’ve been having with Congress about appropriations in that space to further build up this capacity,” VanRoekel said at the meeting. “What Digital Services is really all about is creating a home, a centralized capacity in government to bring technologists, user experience people, people that understand how to deliver great customer service, high scale systems in a central capacity and work with agencies in targeted ways to help them understand where are there gaps in their ability to deliver solutions, where are they missing that right person to go to this or where are they missing that right capacity, where are there procurements may be going off track in a way that will not deliver a solution in a 21st century way.”

He said the Digital Service Office then will figure out how to fill those gaps, using 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellows and other similar expertise.

Dickerson, who also spoke at the meeting Friday, said the Digital Service Office is focused on “putting out fires” around IT projects, while 18F and the fellows are working on future capabilities.

“My projects tend to be things launched years ago and are not going well,” he said. “We are very operational and embed with agencies where we are needed. Our primary work product is not memos, advisory statements and new processes and stuff like that — it’s actual working, functioning services.”

Efforts at the VA

A fourth piece to this personnel effort is at VA. The department hired experts to create a Digital Service team.

“We’ve actually got a couple of examples where some of these folks with these kinds of backgrounds and skills have done, from our internal perspective, what would be described as extraordinary things, projects that had brought us to our knees, and these guys literally in a matter of days or a few weeks have created end products, customer facing, veteran facing end products that are extraordinary,” said Sloan Gibson, VA’s deputy secretary. “That has gotten us very enthused about the opportunity here and very anxious to build out this digital services team, because I think it’s really going to be part of the transformative stew that we are trying to prepare over at VA to be able to deliver better outcomes for our veterans.”

Beth Cobert, the OMB deputy director for management, also offered an update on other management agenda priorities.

She said she spent all of July meeting with agencies to develop benchmarks for back-office services.

“We literally built a new set of benchmarks to measure the cost effectiveness of administrative support functions and used those to stimulate a dialogue within the agencies where those agencies themselves saw opportunities for improvement,” Cobert said. “We did this not just at the level of the overall agency, but actually at the level of the components. Many agencies, whether Commerce, HHS, Transportation or Justice, have incredibly different things with different missions inside their agencies, so comparing them at the macro level is helpful, but it doesn’t get you that far. They also will be using this to develop tools that will allow folks in the agencies to do their own comparisons and set peers and benchmarks to do this.”

OMB stated in its update on Performance.gov that the goal leaders, OMB and GSA, are gathering requirements for the governmentwide benchmarking database.

The administration says it will let agencies access phase 1 metrics, perform analysis, build a variety of charts and compare themselves against customized groups. OMB says this database should be ready this month.

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