The Federal IT Papers–Part 1

At right is a team of five people. No it isn’t some devil worship bluepentagram. You see their 10 lines of communication. If that project were to get into trouble and fall behind, what should we do? The overwhelming choice would be to throw some additional people onto the project to get it back on track. Dumb.

redHere it is. You aren’t allowed to make fun of my art skills. Microsoft doesn’t have a seven-sided figure in the shapes toolbox. So, yes it is ugly. But it is also much more complex. I simply added two people to the team, bumping it from five to seven. The lines of communication went from 10 to 21. How many people do you think were working on when it launched? I would say a lot, probably a couple hundred. When you surge a bunch of people onto a project of that size, it is going to get worse before it gets better, and it did. A different approach could be, I would argue, should be, to take people away from a project like that.

Think about accountability and responsibility in a project of that size. In a project of 200 people it is easier to point a finger and say, “Uh, I thought he was doing it… .” When that number starts decreasing you are actually concentrating accountability and responsibility on the people who are remaining. There is less, not more opportunity to point a finger. The people who remain now feel empowered to take decisive action. So, surge, good for war, bad for development.

The problem with the USDS is that they make all these promises and have cachet. They are in the West Wing after all. When they recruit people, the mind-set coming in is that everyone who was working in Federal IT before I got here is shit. As a result they get rid of everyone who knows anything. I’ll never forget when the USDS poster boy, David Recordon (CIO of the Executive Office of the President), came to a CIO Council meeting and said, I kid you not, “I receive between 300 and 400 email messages a day. I wish there was some way I could know what is important and what isn’t.” That might not be the exact quote but that is really close. I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “Yeah, you had SES people who were there to help guide you, but you trashed them all, so now you gotta figure it out by yourself.”

David isn’t a bad guy. But you need to have a team of people to help you perform the work. If you get rid of every single person, then you will find yourself alone on an island. And that is the mistake of the USDS. They come in with this mind-set that they know what is wrong and they know how to fix it. When you get down to it, they will make all of the same mistakes that tons of people before them have already made time and time again.

How about one of the first CIOs to embrace USDS with open arms? That CIO was literally the first CIO to say, “Find me a good USDS person.” So the USDS went and did their thing. Guess what? The first candidate they sent over was a person who already worked at the agency. The CIO said, “Thank you for confirming what I already knew. I have already recognized the talented individual and assigned specific projects. How about someone I don’t already know?” So USDS went out and recruited someone from the Valley. That person arrived with the mind-set that anyone who was doing IT before I got here sucks. So the first thing this person did was get the ear of the agency head and pooh-poohed the CIO. The person who brought in the USDS got pooh-poohed by the USDS. The agency head decided to get rid of the CIO. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you? What do you think the reaction was of the career people there?

The only silver lining to this approach of blacklisting current IT people is that, given enough time, they will start cannibalizing their own. I am here to tell you that it has already happened. Before digital service, what was the rage of the new IT people coming into the administration? Remember the “new media” and “digital strategy” people who got agencies on Facebook and Twitter? Well, it is funny how some of those people have been pushed out by these newer USDS people. So the thinking seems to be, anyone who got here more than five minutes before me needs to go.

And now I see them embedding themselves in preparation for this next administration, and I can’t sit idly by and not speak up. Somebody has to pierce this bubble and say, hey guys, thanks for importing a whole bunch of really smart people who don’t know the first thing about how to get shit done here. Thanks for bringing in a bunch of people who don’t value my contributions and don’t want to hear about what has worked and what hasn’t. How about, instead, you show a little love to the people who have been here from the beginning and who actually know how to make government work?

This administration has tried to import change. They are trying to change government from the outside 7 by bringing in the “best and brightest” to, um, I guess lead the mediocre-est and dimmest. Thank you. I can’t understand why you haven’t been more effective.

I wish that there was a cure for stupidity. I wish I could give someone a pill like NZT8 and all of a sudden they would stop making short-sighted, dumb decisions. I know that there was a time when I was one of the dumb people who I rail against. But that is partially the purpose of writing this. My eyes were opened to the dumb decisions because I made them and felt the impact of having made some of the stupidest moves ever. Now I see how we are elevating a bunch of naive people above the people who have learned lessons the really old-fashioned way, by trying, failing, and trying again until we get it to work. Instead of people who are shaped by experience, we are going to force them to follow the guidance of people who:

  1. Think that the IT people here before them are the problem that needs to be bulldozed.
  2. Haven’t ever worked in a big structured government environment with rules.
  3. Are completely on their own making decisions with no safety net.

On that last point, start-ups, by their very nature, begin, do some stuff, and then most of them end up failing. When people with this mentality come in as a CIO or CTO at a big government agency, we can’t just accept that the whole thing can simply fail and we’ll move on and try somewhere else. Failure is an option in Silicon Valley and it happens all the time, but it isn’t in a government agency. We can’t simply fail to deliver on the mission.

As such, I am trying to invent the cure for stupidity by telling you both what is wrong and what is right. It is based on my experience and the things that I have seen firsthand. You can consider it, or not. In the end, you will hear stuff from me that you won’t hear from anyone else. Smart people want to hear all sides. I hope that you will see the wisdom in that and make up your own mind.

For me, I would focus much less on bringing in the geek squad from San Jose and focus more on the training and development of the IT leadership and rank and file we currently have. You play the game with the team you have, not the team you want. If the team you have is deficient, you can try to replace those people with other people who don’t have those deficiencies, or you could actually coach those people to help them be better or more effective at their job. My opinion is clear. Investing in people will deliver back to you 10 times more than the cost. You will have helped a person to be better and that person will work harder to help you achieve your goals. Finally, that person will be loyal and honest to you, so if the program isn’t going well, that person, whom you have a relationship with, whom you coached, whom you invested in, whom you empowered, will tell you the truth.

Listen, if the challenge in the Federal government is in adopting agile development practices, look at the FAC-P/PM certification. Duh, it reinforces waterfall development. Go to the heart of the problem, refine the benchmarks for the certification and let’s get EVERYONE up to that standard. We aren’t helping anyone by bringing in someone from The Big Bang Theory who will change a bunch of stuff and then leave in two or three years. That is not sustainable change. That is giving a man a fish. But if we focus on the project managers and the contracting officers, we can raise the collective understanding across all IT acquisitions and that would be a sustainable change, teaching him to fish.

Look at the performance of SES Candidate Development Programs? How many 2210s are we including in those development programs? If IT is one of the areas in which we have significant leadership challenges (and it is), then why are we devoting most of our seats in SES CDPs to mission? We need to invest in our people and we need to help them to deliver stronger value to the agency. No program, no mission can work today without IT in its backbone. But we are investing in mission people to be the senior leaders and trying to import IT leaders from outside of government. That is the mismatch.

I’m not saying that we should never hear from outside people. They have a part, and they challenge conventional thinking, which is good. But I am saying that shouldn’t be the only solution, we should be investing in and growing our own IT leaders as well.

If you liked this, you will like the other chapters of this…thing. I’ll talk about what is dumb and stupid and offer a different approach that could be considered. Maybe it won’t make a difference, but for me, it is a little cathartic just getting it off my chest.

In This Series:

The Federal IT Papers–Part 1

The Federal IT Papers–Part 2

The Federal IT Papers–Part 3

The Federal IT Papers–Part 4

The Federal IT Papers–Part 5

The Federal IT Papers–Part 6

The Federal IT Papers–Part 7

The Federal IT Papers–Part 8

The Federal IT Papers–Part 9

The Federal IT Papers–Part 10

The Federal IT Papers–Part 11

The Federal IT Papers–Part 12



2 Getting it Done Revised, from IBM is a pretty good one –