Former Labor CIO opens up about challenges of IT reform

The Labor Department is making slow and steady progress in changing how it manages and oversees technology.

Initially, Labor struggled to implement the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), getting final approval of its plan months after nearly every other agency.

Dawn Leaf, the former chief information officer of the Labor Department who retired on Sept. 30 after four years on the job, said getting the agency to change hasn’t been easy.

“Labor, in my opinion, is still a very insular culture. You have people that have been there for decades and they will go from agency to agency in various positions and it’s a very federated and decentralized culture — in all things including IT,” Leaf said in an “exit” interview on Ask the CIO. “It’s interesting you mentioned [former assistant secretary of Labor for administration and management and CIO Patrick] Pizzella because I read a memo that he wrote back in 2004 encouraging all of the agencies to voluntarily work together to consolidate. So in 2016, that consolidation had still not occurred.”

Dawn Leaf retired on Sept. 30 as the Labor Department CIO.
Dawn Leaf retired on Sept. 30 as the Labor Department CIO.

Leaf said there have been other attempted consolidations too. In 2011, former Labor Deputy Secretary Seth Harris tried to move the culture toward a more centralized or departmental view instead of a bureau perspective.

Harris promoted Leaf, who was hired as the deputy CIO, to full-time CIO around that time as part of that push to gain better oversight and control over IT spending.

“It was fortunate that it happened right before FITARA was put into law. Although that was not a driver. We didn’t know that when the change made,” she said. “FITARA requires a significant culture change to have the departments looking at IT from a departmental perspective. One of the things about FITARA that is interesting from a practical standpoint is that it levies responsibilities on the CIOs but it’s not prescriptive in terms of authorities. It defers, and I’m not saying it’s wrong, the definition of authorities to each respective agency. If you look at an agency like Commerce, it was a very clear direction from the secretary who told the agency heads you are as responsible for FITARA as the CIO that is very counter to the Department of Labor’s culture. It’s not just with IT. It’s with human resources and it’s even with things like sharing workspaces. I don’t want to paint too bleak of a picture, you have a lot of small agencies who really do understand the efficiencies and look at it from a department perspective. But you also have especially the large well-funded agencies who have traditionally worked, and I believe in fairness from their perspective, most effectively in a siloed approach. So it’s just a culture challenge for the department.”

Leaf said Labor needs strong leaders to change the culture, and who are strong champions of IT who sees technology as a transformation tool. She said the department’s efforts over the last few years to move to cloud email, to move toward a centralized infrastructure by consolidating nine different networks, and IT governance are having a positive impact.

“You also have a case where you may have a leadership team that looks at IT more as a utility model and is more comfortable in letting the status quo be the status quo,” she said. “It really depends on, in this case, what the next administration brings to the Department of Labor as to what direction the department takes and how quickly that happens. I did leave my own CIO state of Labor IT assessment and recommendations for the leadership team and to inform the State of Federal IT that Tony Scott and OMB are preparing.”

Leaf said it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss those recommendations specifically, but said supporting the IT staff and continuing to grow the staff is important because the CIO’s office now is serving 90 percent of all employees, which wasn’t the case four or five years ago.

“FITARA is not only good, it’s essential. If you think about why FITARA came about and where data center consolidation came out and the 25 point plan, the federal government is spending over $80 billion a year in IT and we could certainly be more efficient and effective,” she said. “Forget about authorities for a second, it requires top-down planning. If you have a lot of organizations, they may be optimizing for their own program, their own mission or their own space, but they are not looking at IT holistically. I believe it’s essential to do it not only at the department level, but also at the federal level with federal shared data centers.”

Leaf said it’s important to require agencies to think about how to make IT more efficient and be mission focused.

During her 20-plus year career in the federal government, Leaf said the biggest change she’s seen is in the expertise of system development and design. She said 30 years ago, the federal government was the place to design large-scale systems. Now, industry is leading that effort.

“Business really now depends on IT. It’s not a nicety. If you lose email service, if you lose network connectivity, they can’t work. So it’s critical,” she said. “IT has changed. It’s no longer computing that is on an on-premise machine with dedicated hardware and software. We know really have a ubiquitous model. It’s not just cloud computing, but just off-site hosting and the dependency of the network. It’s a totally different model.”

Another big change is around the influence and participation of women in technology field, especially in the government.

“I find it amazing that 35 years later, there are still more men in tech industry than women,” she said. “But it also depends on the type of industry. When I worked in private sector I was working for an air and space company that was really dominated by people who had been in the military or had been in the discipline that we supported. There were just more men than women.”

Leaf said she appreciated the fact that the government is more open and more accessible for women and minorities, especially in the technology sector.

As for her future, Leaf said she plans on staying retired. She may volunteer or teach, but has no plans to be back in the federal community.

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