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They’re operating under a continuing resolution, but agency information technology staffs are working hard on modernizing. Recently the office of the Federal Chief Information Officer came out with what it called a governmentwide operating plan. CIO Clare Martorana said the plan should not be confused with a strategy. At the recent ACT-IAC executive leadership conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin caught up with Martorana and asked what the difference is between a plan and a strategy.
Clare Martorana: The way I think about it is a strategic vision document, you know, paints the picture of what we want to be in existence, sometime in the future. The IT operating plan was specifically answering questions from Congress about how do the Citizen Service Fund, the, you know, the GSA appropriations. OMB’s I tore fund that has two parts of it. One is OFCIO, the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer that also houses the Federal CISO, as well as the United States Digital Service. So the question was, how do you all work together and coordinate across government? We felt the best way to answer that question was more on a tactical level. Here’s what we do. Here’s how we operate. And here’s what we get accomplished by operating in this fashion and governing ourselves in this process.
Tom Temin: In some ways, it almost sounds like the military term concept of operations. They use that word.
Clare Martorana: Yeah, very similar. We didn’t want to come out and say, you know, in five years, there will be you know, magical digital services that will do all the things for all the people, we want it to be more practical and say, we’re on a journey. And this is these are the component pieces of one part of the journey. And then we have our agency partners that also are on journeys, and how might this operating plan in the center of government actually aid agencies going on similar journeys or trying to get to the starting line to go on their modernization journey.
Tom Temin: And a lot of modernization includes new digital services, new applications. And you talked a lot about sprints and the need to do rapid development, so forth. How does that work? And how do you balance that with the need for durability, accountability, long term maintenance, even in the sprint context, so that applications have some consistency over maybe decades?
Clare Martorana: Absolutely. The interesting thing about a sprint is the keys to success are making sure that you have subject matter experts and federal staff on a sprint team, right? There are wonderful contracting partners across government that could come in, air drop a team in, do an enormous amount of things, build a prototype, hand it to you and then leave, what we really find to be effective is actually building a cross functional team. Our vendor partners, our contracting partners, our federal subject matter experts, and people that have digital competencies, so that those people either from the United States Digital Service, or possibly even from a vendor coming in designing a sprint, but bringing our federal staff along on that journey, bringing those subject matter experts along because if you build a prototype of something, the concept of that is in order to allow us to pressure test, a technical concept, a technical solution, without investing, I need $10 million over the next three years, and I’m going to build a thing. And then it is going to be immovable by doing user research rapidly prototyping something to see if you can fulfill the needs of those users, you’re iterating and you are rapidly developing so that you are not pouring cement, until you know actually what you need to build, and then the path for future sustainment. Because one of the most challenging things that you can do is build something that is terrific. That then needs to scale. And you don’t have the funding, you don’t have the staff. And you don’t really have the organizational commitment to make sure that it can be sustained over a period of time. That requires partnership with your CFO, requires partnership with your acquisition team to make sure that you’re designing any of these solutions, so that they’re the most flexible, but also the most sustainable, long term.
Tom Temin: And in many ways that requires the program owner itself, him or herself to be not only involved but to take responsibility because it’s their program.
Clare Martorana: They should be the sprint champion. Right? If you’re building something on behalf of a business unit, they need to be in the room you are, the way that I think of it is my background is product management. So the way that product management works is, you understand the business requirements, you understand the customer needs, you understand the technology, you might not code the solution yourself. But you understand all of those, you bring everyone together onto the same team. And the product manager is kind of the Venn in those overlapping circles that actually make sure you’re fulfilling the business need, you’re doing it in a sustainable and scalable manner, that you have done the design with your users, that you’re not presuming what your customer wants, that you’re actually asking your customer what they want and need, and designing a service for them. And that the technologists are the ones making the informed recommendation about the technology solution. It’s not me as the CIO or me as the business owner, who’s going to say, we’re going to build this system with X widget. And X widget is our solution for everything. It is actually letting the technologists make those decisions, because they’re in the room with you, with the business partner and with the customer.
Tom Temin: And program rules change because of legislation, because of some national need, ultimately, is what drives all of this. And so if a program then needs different data calls, different sources, different integrations from another agency. And we’ve seen examples of this time and time again, over the decades Cash for Clunkers. You know, that was another one that worked, you know, for the time that it lived. How do you maintain the ATO and the cybersecurity, I mean, that’s got to be kind of table stakes for these things. But yet, every time you add a new say data call, it changes.
Clare Martorana: Absolutely. But with API’s application programming interfaces, right, you can do that in a much more fluid manner. So that you are actually testing in, you’re not necessarily testing, you’re in your production environment, but you’re able to rapidly test in your dev environment to make sure that you can ingest that data that the data is clean, that that data is giving you an informed set of information that’s actually improving the experience for the customer. So there’s lots of different modern technology, you know, best practices that are being utilized all across the government that actually help these programs, you don’t have to go and refactor an enormous amount of your technology to plug in new APIs.
Tom Temin: Right? So then that gets to the issue of shared services and shared logic services, because so much of the logic is the same across all of these domains, all of these agencies, and it’s only one layer that distinguishes one agency from the other. I’m simplifying, right? But with containerization, and the ability to lock in functions via APIs or inter container communications, it seems like a lot of sprinting can be avoided. Because, you know, you’ve got the library already there.
Clare Martorana: Yeah. And I think it brings up something that we talked about a little bit on the main stage, with the life experiences, for example, is thinking about how the customer transits one task that might be housed at one agency. And then they have to log out of that system. Remember the username and password, go to a completely different system, log into it, create an identity, validate their identity, log into a new system, remember that username and password, complete that task, go to the third system, do the exact same thing. We’re trying to think through shared services. How do we help that customer complete an end to end journey, right. That’s why we always talk about journey maps, an end to end journey and focus on those specific moments that matter in each of those journeys. And make sure that we try to make that as seamless as possible for the user so that they don’t have to keep username password over here. I went to a veteran’s home while I was serving at the VA. And he had, I took a picture with his permission of his computer. That was an old style monitor really big and thick. And all around it were Post-It notes with his different VA benefits, his username and password for each one of those systems. And it was so stunning to see that he needed to remind himself for him to just fill a prescription, check on a benefit, a claim that was in process and do a couple other things. He had to use all of those different usernames and passwords just to accomplish those goals. And it really drove home for me the burden that we’re putting on our customers. And we have certain customers that deal with government services that might be in a fragile mindset. Right, they could have, you know, gone through a disaster and that they’re have lost their home or had some significant part of their life disrupted. And they don’t have their computer with all their Post-It notes like how are we being of service to them, and making it easier for them to navigate all of these different technical systems in the most simple and seamless way, but with security as our prime focus.
Tom Temin: Sure, and you mentioned the life experiences in passing, we should maybe explain the five life experience project going on.
Clare Martorana: Yeah, they are examples of them are surviving a disaster, facing economic challenge. nearing retirement, just think about that alone. When you’re nearing retirement, you have to fulfill certain activities with Social Security. But you also need to do similar things at Medicare that are age sensitive. If you don’t do them at the right time, in Medicare, for example, there is, in some circumstances, there’s a penalty, that not only if you if you apply late, it not only impacts you this year, it impacts you the rest of your life. And you think about that and think, golly, did we make it so hard for somebody who worked for 40 years, 50 years, they’ve paid into the system, they’ve earned these benefits. These are, you know, wonderful benefits of the United States government. And did we make it so hard that they have to pay a penalty every year because we didn’t make it seamless for them to be able to go, hey, I’m gonna check this box over here. And that’s going to auto enroll me over here, so I don’t get a penalty. Those are the kinds of things through life experiences, that we’re trying to figure out another great one.
Tom Temin: So will there be like a deliverable at the end of a certain period where there will be five life experiences or six life experiences and a portal that kind of encompasses all those?
Clare Martorana: We’re doing discovery on them right now, by bringing all the agencies together so that they start working together. Another wonderful one that is being worked on is off boarding from active duty to becoming a veteran, you off board from active duty, then there’s big, dark space. And then at some point, you show up at the VA and have to re-present yourself as a veteran. And if you think about it, the day you off board, don’t you become a veteran, if you’re thinking of it again, from a customer perspective. So the DoD and the VA are doing tremendous work together thinking about they have a great program called TAP, the Transition Assistance Program. Correct. And that works great. And it’s hands on training. And they’re trying to think of ways to optimize it. So that’s a way these two incredibly large agencies are not thinking about themselves. They’re thinking about their customer, how can they be of service and then how can the systems align with what the service need is.