Leveraging External Ideas to Drive IT Modernization





In part two of a three-part video segment, Nathan Brewer, Group Vice President for Sapient Consulting Public Sector, Chad Sheridan, Chief Information Officer at the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency, and Jeff Weiner, Deputy Executive Officer of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, discuss the importance of listening to and leveraging outside ideas to help drive your IT modernization strategy. 

See full transcript below. To view all three panel segments, please visit federalnewsradio.com/sapient.

Jason Miller: Welcome back to the panel discussion "Driving IT Modernization in Government" sponsored by Sapient on FederalNewsRadio.com and 1500 AM. I'm Jason Miller. My guests today are Chad Sheridan, the Chief Information Officer of the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency; Jeff Weiner, the Deputy Executive Officer of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health; and Nathan Brewer, the Vice President for Sapient Consulting Public Sector.

We were just ending with the idea of bringing in some outside ideas, understanding that where you live is not necessarily where all the best ideas come from. So, Chad, you were about to jump in. Talk a little bit about how you kind of reach out to the outside.

Chad Sheridan: It starts with the attitude from the top. I think we have to encourage, by our actions, this notion that all good ideas do not come from our own experience. We tend to have this attitude of the story of the bear. Two guys in the woods run into a bear, one guy starts putting on sneakers, the other guy says, "Why are you putting on sneakers? You can't outrun the bear." He says, "I don't need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you." We take that attitude with our brother and sister federal agencies, and it makes no sense. If we can't learn lessons from somebody else, if we can't collaborate and use shared services or use shared ideas, there's no way each individual agency is going to be able to solve all of these problems.

JM: Interesting you bring up shared services. We're going to get there probably as part of the conversation, but the USDA is a huge proponent of shared services. You guys were one of the first ones to take email to the cloud, as one example. That was not an idea that many other agencies were doing at the time, and it's worked well I've heard.

CS:  In some cases, yes. In some cases, it could get better. I think one of the things we're looking at is to use shared services, whether it's in the executive order for cybersecurity or in the OMB memorandum on agency reform, it's going to be in the MGT Act, all of those things are the push. It makes sense for those things that are not differentiating to the mission. But I think we have to approach it from a different mindset. We have tended to approach it from a provider's mindset. So if I'm a shared service provider, how do I consolidate and go at it from that perspective? I think we go back to, what are the requirements for those shared services? If I have human resources, if I have procurement, if I have data center hosting or end-user services, what are my requirements? If you gather those requirements and look at the concept of operations for an agency, for example, in HR services at the USDA, most of us do general federal hiring and things of that nature. However, the forest service and other agencies have to hire up to 10,000 or more temporary workers every year. Well, that's a different service model than general hiring and HR services. So build that concept of operations and then go out and build a solution that meets those needs. Start with the requirements. We all know this. This is good practice. Let's keep going with that.

JM: You have to actually do it, right?

CS: Yep.

JM: Jeff, let me turn to you because you brought up the idea of reaching outside of your comfort zone. Talk a little bit about what you've brought from the outside.

Jeff Weiner: One of the things for us recently, and this happened a few years ago, essentially we were in the process of trying to organize all the different websites we had. We have kidney disease and liver and we have diabetes information, and we were trying to find a way to bring them together. And so, of course, we reached out to our local IT shop to see if they could help us navigate this and pick the best technologies for centralizing all this information. And what we learned very quickly was we weren't quite ready for this on our own, and we knew we needed help.

That started a whole level of discovery where we started reaching out and looking at other industries and looking at other people who had successfully navigated this because our websites and our information is a major asset that we put out to help the world. In our case, we happened to select Sapient as the company, and they've been with us now for probably three years, and we've made this major migration. Because not only did they help us navigate the technology decisions to understand the capabilities of the systems, they helped us figure out how to do the internal change management. How do we get our groups prepared? How do we clean up the data? How do we have the project management expertise to keep this on track? We needed and got outside expertise that was incredibly helpful because right now our website is doing a really terrific job of delivering information about our services.

JM: And when you change how you deliver those services, you make people happy. And people forget that, in the end, right, you want to go to any website, whether it's government or private sector, and have a good experience. There's nothing worse than everyone going to those press zero to talk to an operator and you're pressing zero. The same thing applies with a website. Nathan, it's a great story. Jeff talked about the websites. How are you guys seeing that with clients across the board in the federal market in terms of working through some of these issues and bringing in these new ideas?

Nathan BrewerI think in a couple ways. It reminds me of one of my first gigs almost 20 years ago with the Marine Corps. I'll never forget that a young enlisted marine turns to the general officer and says, "Sir, I can go off base and get my oil changed in 30 minutes at Jiffy Lube, and it takes me two weeks to get my Humvee's oil changed on base. What's the issue here?" I think that captures the expectations that we're all bringing as consumers in the broader world too when we and employees interact with a government agency. You no longer get the pass. it's an experience that people expect.

I think the other thing that gets me really excited about government acquisition right now is that –

JM: Wait, wait, wait. Excited about government acquisition? I had to jump in there. I'm the only one who gets excited about government acquisition.

NB: This echoes a little bit of what Chad and Jeff were saying.  I think the government has taken a very, very measured approach to focusing on defining requirements, defining what’s working within their agency on what they know best, which is that mission piece, and then throwing it out to industry and saying, “Okay, tell us how you would solve this. What is the how here?” Then taking a step back and saying, “Well, is that what's best to serve our mission?” It's a real nice interplay between what the government does best and what the industry does best without causing either of them to go outside of their comfort zones.

JM: Chad.

CS: I think it's also rethinking our acquisitions. We have traditionally bought products. In the hardware space, that makes a lot of sense. However, in the services space, if I try to write the requirements for a software product or a system, and assume that I've got all of that right up front and I could put a fixed price or even a cost plus contract in place and I'm going to get the product, I think we're abdicating our government responsibility to our users for that product. Also, there's no way in a non-physically limited software world that we know what the requirements are up front. As you try to move to a more agile model, I think you use your acquisitions more based on the development services you’re buying and the expertise that they bring to the table on how to build it. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to deliver the capability to my mission, not my contractors. That's where we need to make that abstraction.

JM: I knew you were going down the path of agile, and I thought that's where Nathan was going to go for a second when you started saying this because the move towards agile is really all about that user experience piece. You'd hear it from the U.S. Digital Service or 18F or some of the digital services organizations and agencies. Nathan, from your perspective, is the agile conversation much more comfortable now than maybe a year or two or three ago?

NB: Oh, absolutely. I think even if you look at not just agile, but the move to DevOps is really making O&M sexy in terms of the ability to take an O&M function and have it continually evolve and respond to users' needs and the agency’s needs. I think that has been a massive shift in just how government IT organizations are envisioning how they continue to provide those services.

JM: Jeff, let's talk about that website project real quick again. Did agile play a role in it or how did you ensure that the users had the proper say?

JW: We’re constantly working with our community of scientists, collaborators, the medical community, and our stakeholders who are looking for grants from the National Institutes of Health. So one of the things we learned on our web project, talking about agility, we started off thinking we're going to organize our information just like we did before. We're going to make it available so people can see it on their desktop computer just like they did before. What we learned through the process was, wait a second, our consuming public, the regular people, the regular American citizens, aren't sitting at a desktop when they look at our information. They're looking at their iPhone or their tablet. What we had to do was essentially course correct and adjust things so that when we display our content, if you show up and you have an iPhone, that content is customized so that you can read it and it's much easier to navigate. We never would have anticipated that at the beginning. I think that's where these relationships with vendors and the way we're doing contracting currently tries to provide some flexibility because we recognize the world evolves, and sometimes it does it pretty quickly.

JM: That's a great point about thinking that, well, we think we know how to solve it and then some data comes back and you're like, “Okay, we were wrong.” Chad, you probably have the same experience with farmers. You're thinking, well, farmers, they go in the field all day then they go back to their desks at night and they input their data, and you're finding it's much – I know you're not into the data, but it's – the farmers are acting differently.

CS:  It is not the way it was. One of the things that's really driving change in our industry is this idea of precision farming. So I've got GPS-enabled devices that originally were only on the high end –the $300,000-plus machines. So the penetration of the market was limited for a while. Now, you've got these aftermarket sellers to where penetration into the market for high-precision GPS-driven farming is there. It's almost ubiquitous. If you're not using it, you're really not keeping up with technology. So we as government agencies need to figure out not just on the technology side, but working with our mission partners on how our policies support precision farming. How do our policies, not just within the risk management agency but across the entire new mission in USDA farm production and conservation, fit? How do we look at it from the farmer's perspective, not from my perspective? What makes sense for the farmer and how can we present one integrated view to that farmer?

JM: Nathan, I think Chad brings up a really interesting point, and really what he's getting at is the innovation that's happening all around us. It's one thing for Chad or Jeff to say, well, we have innovation internally, but there's innovation on the consumer or the customer side. How do you guys at Sapient work with your federal clients to say, “Hey, don't forget to look at precision farming and how GPS is everywhere now?”

NB: Yeah, I think one of our mantras from when we founded the business was to bring the best of all of this big global commercial corporation to bear for our clients in the public sector. We're able to bring in a lot of new ideas like that, but it's also, I think, establishing that partnership with our government clients just to have conversations. I'll never forget the first iPhone app that I was ever involved in developing came out of a conversation with a client less than six months after the App Store was launched. A federal customer was already thinking of how the citizenry is going to respond to this development and do we need a voice there or not? And so to me, it's that conversation because industry doesn't have all the right ideas, you know, neither does government. Coming together, I think you get a nice interplay of ideas.

JM: Jeff, one of the things when you talk about change, I think you brought up change management, and that's hard because when you say, “We're going to redo our websites to make them more user-friendly, make it easier to find, you're always going to have the grump, who's going to send you that email and say why'd you change your website? I can't believe you did that. We get it at Federal News Radio. I'm sure everybody gets it. How do you deal with that change management internally but also externally?

JW: We do it a lot of ways. One of the key things in every change management book I've ever read says the same thing. You need leadership support. We happen to be incredibly lucky. We have incredible leaders at my organization. They really believe in delivering better information to the public, and so for us, when you have obstacles or impediments or people who aren't quite feeling the enthusiasm, we have ways of bringing them into the conversation, and so we have a very active community. Scientists, by their very nature, like to poke at things and they like to question things, and in our world, that's really good. It means sometimes takes longer to make a decision, but there's this socialization process so that when you're trying to make change, it's not just the IT people. It's also the community, it's the users, it's the stakeholders, and so we take this very holistic view. We have community dialog at a lot of different levels that helps us navigate to actually get people and gain consensus to move in the same direction.

JM: Do you get a sense that it's easier to move the outside versus the internal folks because, again, as I think Chad mentioned, you've got to have the institutional knowledge but you've got to also have a short memory of what didn't work before. Well, today's different.

JW: It is different. I think it's a mixture, and I would say, fortunately, we are a scientifically oriented organization, and so in that regard, change is what they do, so that makes my life as an IT supporter much easier.

JM:  That's true. Maybe I should ask Chad that question as to change management because as you said, sometimes at USDA, you have the “not invented here” problem.

CS: I think it's a matter of you cannot communicate enough. And what we found, some of our lessons learned as we made our journey to more agile delivery models is we didn't communicate enough and we didn't explain it in terms that our stakeholders could understand. It was, “Why are we doing this? What's in it for you? Why does this matter?” And I keep going back to asking, “Why are we doing this, why does this make sense, what's the value we expect to get out of it?” and recognizing that we're going to make mistakes along the way. The point is to learn from those mistakes and own them. So if something goes wrong, I own it. My team owns it too, but I own it. Here's what we're going to do differently, and we gain respect by not pointing the fingers elsewhere, not skimping around the problem, but just, “Hey, we own this, this is our issue, here's what we're going to do to fix it.”

JM: I agree with you. Nathan, as you're working with your federal clients, how do you ensure that you communicate to them they need to communicate and own it?

NB: Oh, absolutely. I think Chad's spot on. You cannot communicate enough. I think the other thing is when you have those curmudgeons that may be standing in your way, I actually tell clients, I'm like tell me who they are, bring them to us and let us interact. Because there is something—if you assume good intent— there is something inside there that is valuable and that will inform you and make a better solution.