Mission enabled: GSA scales TBM to deliver more efficient IT
U.S. General Services Administration
David Shive is the CIO for the U.S. General Services Administration, where he oversees alignment between IT and agency and administration strategic objectives and priorities. I caught up with David during the TBM Council’s Public Sector Summit in Washington DC to talk about Mars, mission, and management (as in, the President’s Management Agenda).
David, what are the unique challenges and opportunities that come with the CIO role in a very large federal agency?
That’s an interesting question because to some, especially those who recently began working with the federal government, we can seem like a massive enterprise. By most measures, we really are. But when you look at us compared to most federal agencies, we're what they call a mid-tier or mid-sized agency, even though, for example, we have the largest facilities portfolio and the second or third largest [vehicle] fleet in the world. So, the scale is big but in the portfolio of federal agencies, there are others that absolutely dwarf us. The Department of Defense, Commerce, Veterans Affairs, and Transportation—those are the big boys.
So, what are the challenges and opportunities that are unique to being the CIO of GSA specifically?
When I was working in the private sector, most of my work was focused on the public sector. I worked for some companies that did a fair amount of work with state, local, tribal governments, and federal business as well. I found the work to be very rewarding but I suspected I could have a greater impact—on a larger scale—by working from the inside. As soon as I stepped into public service, that absolutely proved to be the case.
One of our challenges while working on a massive scale like this is dealing with the modernization of foundational technology. When you’re modernizing your home network, it’s a hard task, but you still have the ability to just roll up your sleeves and get it done. But when you're modernizing the foundational network for a large enterprise like GSA or another federal agency—or in the private sector with, for example, a large defense contractor, it is a wildly complex and very difficult task.
Scaling modernization can not only be a challenge, but also an opportunity. We have the ability to move beyond a one-to-one type of relationship—one person fixing one thing. You can have a team of people fixing the whole enterprise of things. That scale works on our behalf; we engage our trusted partners and have a greater impact.
It is not necessarily unique, but one of the great challenges and opportunities is being able to focus on doing IT well and doing it right internally. Because we're a service-oriented organization, the impacts of doing things well internally are felt across all government in the same way a private sector can assess the impacts of his or her work on their customers. Our federal government agency partners and peers are our customer base. That opportunity makes what we do here at GSA very, very rewarding.
If you're able to do new and innovative things on a large scale, you can move the needle in a big way and have a very broad impact—and that is also profoundly rewarding.
Where does your role as CIO in the federal government and the public sector overlap with CIOs in the private space?
Having been on both sides, there are many similarities, especially when you're comparing a large enterprise like a federal government agency with a Fortune 100 company. There are a lot of analogies, like maximizing the value of the use of technology and supporting the business mission. The personnel challenges and opportunities are similar too. You're attracting top-notch talent into your organization and getting people to focus on the organization’s mission to perform their best work.
Being able to effectively make an impact at a large enterprise in an agile or reactive way can be difficult on both sides because the rapid pace of changing technology says you need to move quickly and be very nimble. That can be difficult sometimes in a large organization. But, if done well, it can absolutely be done.
Where it's different in the private sector is the regulated environment for CIOs. For example, private sector CIOs need to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley, and then have to complete SAS 70 reports. Those are very formulaic and provide some transparency into what they do. The regulatory environment within the federal government is large, significant, and takes a fair number of cycles to communicate what we do and how we’re doing it. Just the volume of that type of oversight and transparency into what we do is different.
Both spaces require a strategic outlook. The outlook in the private sector is focused on doing things with technology that increase shareholder value. While the public sector does care about the money that we spend in support of the business mission of our agencies, the dollars are not the end-all-be-all. For us it's really about mission enablement. Are citizens being served by our missions? Are their lives made easier? Are their interactions with the government being facilitated and made simpler? And do they feel like they're getting the service that they deserve with the investment they’ve made through taxpayer dollars?
When an ordinary citizen like myself thinks about the government, I have to admit I don’t normally think “agile and nimble.” Why do people give the government a hard time when it comes to responsibly spending taxpayer money on technology? What is the perception versus the reality there?
I've been in the public sector now for eight or nine years so I've heard it all. I do hear people occasionally talking about the spend on technology in the federal space and they sometimes posit that it might be too much. I heard the same exact thing in the commercial space too. Sometimes it came from customers, sometimes it came from the board of directors or from senior management—that's a common theme across the technology landscape. What I hear much more commonly about federal government and their use of technology is they wonder why their experiences with government are not the same as what they experience in their personal lives.
It's more about interaction with the government using technology than it is about the government’s total spend on technology. The government is a widely diversified conglomerated corporation—if you look at the business mission of GSA, and the federal government as a whole, they do everything. From trying to cure cancer, to launching rockets and protecting borders, they're the most diversified corporation there is. Spend across that portfolio is uneven, the same way it is in the commercial space. A plumbing company spends a little differently on IT than, say, a large tech company does, for example.
We see uneven spend in the commercial sector, so it's not surprising to see it within government as well. That said, most of the discussion has not been around, "We needed to spend less." It has been around, "Are you investing in technology in the most effective and efficient manner?" And those are good questions to ask. That’s one of the reasons I'm doubling down on technology business management (TBM) because it helps me answer that very question. Knowing what you're spending is a good thing, but knowing that you're spending in the most effective and efficient way is even better.
Knowing what you're spending is a good thing, but knowing that you're spending in the most effective and efficient way is even better.
CIO, U.S. GSA
What kickstarted your interest in providing more transparency into IT spend at the government level?
Personally, it's because I'm a taxpaying citizen. As a public servant, I want to make sure I’m a good steward of taxpayer dollars. I want to be able to turn and face the people I care about in my community and in my circles and say, "The money that you're investing to do this thing is working very well." I'm a big believer of the idea that what gets measured gets done, and part of that is measuring dollars and cents and the effective use of that spend, especially on such a large scale.
Over time, I was not convinced that the funding was being spent as well as it could be or should be. So it's not just because I came from the private sector and money was better spent there—I'm actually not seeing that. It's because I’m not working for a small group of shareholders anymore. I'm working for the citizens of the United States. I have the same conversations with the administrator of GSA and other federal servants that I work with. It’s become, "Let's make an investment in getting that transparency so we can either confirm that what we're doing is effective and efficient, or if it's not, start to pivot towards being more effective and more efficient."
Haven’t we always had people serving the citizens in government with their best interests in mind? What's different now? What’s driving this shift?
I think everybody has recognized that technology is a game changer in the delivery of government services and in the commercial space. For the longest time, when you would make an investment in technology, you would get good outcomes. You would digitize business, do things faster, and make people more effective and more efficient. Now that technology is a reasonably mature thing, we'll continue to digitize government but there are limited resources. And the old days of ever-increasing budgets are long gone. Now we're required to do more with less, or more with what we have.
And because of that, there is an increasing focus on being as efficient as possible. When our elected officials pass legislation that codifies the role of the CIO, that serves as recognition that having a CIO is a good thing, and that having an effective CIO is also a good thing. All that's doing is communicating that people recognize technology as an enabler to a more efficient government. And having a government-wide view on how effective CIOs are and how well technology is serving and enabling government; that's a good thing.
There are so many good ideas about digitizing government that were put in place over time. We're at the point now where we need to optimize those ideas and get the greatest value out of implementing them. That's why you see things now being measured, like how effective CIOs are, how effective the use of technology is, the value of investments and technology that we do through TBM, and other transparency initiatives. People are recognizing that now is the time to mature our processes and ideas as much as possible so that we get the greatest value out of them.
Tell me about the initiative that you're heading up as part of the President's Management Agenda (PMA) and how you'll make this initiative successful.
One of the great things about the PMA is that it's a strong partnership between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the agencies that are working as a part of the Executive Office. There's always an OMB aspect to cross-agency priority goals, and there's an agency component for the goal regarding the effective implementation of TBM in the federal space. The GSA was honored to be chosen as one of the two agency participants in this goal, along with our partners over at the Department of Education.
GSA was invited for a couple of reasons. One, because through our Office of Government-wide Policy, we write policy and we stand up project management offices that are responsible for helping scale things across government. We also have a deep expertise in TBM; being able to stand up a project management office that has some of that expertise and can reflect on that expertise and then scale that across government is the right thing to do.
The other reason is that innovation is in our DNA here at GSA, and for years now we’ve taken on the first move or risk on behalf of the federal government. We were the first agency in the federal government to have internet on every workstation. And we did that not because we knew it was the right thing, but because we suspected it was the right thing. We suspected our employees would work better and, as a result, the work of GSA would be made better.
But we also did it because the rest of government could watch and see what we're doing. We're a midsize agency, so we could be a bit agile about it. And if it failed, we would only fail in a small, manageable chunk rather than in some large agency spending billions of dollars to do this thing. We've been experimenting for decades, and TBM is a perfect example of what we’re experimenting with now.
We started implementing TBM across the agency a couple of years ago. The expectation was that the learnings that we got from TBM practices would scale beyond the four walls of GSA. We would be able to take the lessons learned, and take the issue areas that we solved, and share those playbooks and learnings with other agencies. They would have good working protocols for implementing something like TBM in a federal agency that they could work off of themselves, instead of taking a larger risk across the entire federal enterprise.
That makes a lot of sense, that GSA provides a foundation for innovation.
You know, one of the things I always say is that innovation is an expensive thing. The appetite for risk and failure out in the commercial space is actually very high. People will spin up an LLC. They'll try something. And if it fails, they just shut the doors of the LLC and open it up again three days later with a new name and try again. You can't do that in government—we don't have that luxury. The appetite for risk in government is much, much smaller. All you have to do is look at the newspaper to see that tolerance is very low. But, while the cost of innovation can be high, the cost of not innovating is even higher.
While the cost of innovation can be high, the cost of not innovating is even higher.
CIO, U.S. GSA
We've architected a pretty elegant solution to be able to take risks in a very managed way, and encapsulated them in a very small place—GSA. We can then take those learnings, and scale those out using government-wide policy, acquisitions, or shared services. We have multiple options for distributing the results for broader implementation.
Where do you think taxpayers will feel the biggest impact as a result of TBM adoption and implementation at GSA?
They'll notice it in a few ways. The first will be how citizens and taxpayers interact with GSA. Systems like our acquisition gateway, usa.gov, data.gov, citizenscience.gov, and places like that have large shared services built for citizens to interact with government. They'll notice that the data that they consume is better and that it's presented in easily digestible ways. They'll notice that web pages are designed to the U.S. web design standard, which we designed, which makes it very easy to consume information. They'll notice that, increasingly, they're able to log in once through login.gov, and get access to a wide portfolio of government services, not just in GSA but, increasingly, across the entire federal portfolio. They'll notice that their interactions with government look and feel more and more like their interactions with other technology-focused companies. They will come to expect that of us, and I think that's a good thing. They’ll continue to see those type of pivots to improved interactions with government.
Another way citizens will notice the change is through the services we provide to other agencies. We build courthouses, we lease buildings, and we're kind of like the online retailer of the federal government—we provide acquisition tools and vehicles for people to buy effectively with the buying power of government. All that work makes a business run effectively but keeps businesses from focusing on the mission when they have to do it themselves. We’re hopeful our work in these spaces will have a positive impact on citizens as the agencies we serve will be more focused on their primary missions.
The hard workers at the National Institutes of Health will be able to cure cancer a little bit faster because they're able to focus their energies on that instead of, "Oh my gosh, we need to develop the lease for our next building," or, "I need to get onto Google to buy this and that.” Now they can just have the acquisition professionals at GSA do that. We can help build the data center they need and the applications that help them do their work.
That is one of the great values. And as a result, our borders will be made safer or NASA will be able to make a Mars mission happen sooner because they're able to focus purely on that mission rather than on this back office kind of stuff, which is really our sweet spot.
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