Federal CIO Kent: Future TMF projects should have ‘all-of-government’ benefit

Despite hitting some recent budget snags in Congress, the Technology Modernization Fund has changed the conversation about how the federal government bankrolls IT transformation projects, Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent said Wednesday.

“Coming in from the private sector, one of the very interesting things [in government] was the concept of talking about transformation, but getting that done with one-year money,” Kent said at Pegasystems’ Government Empowered Conference. “Those things don’t work really well together. A broad and bold vision for transformation in many agencies, whether it’s a micro-journey or something bigger than that, often takes more time.”

Nearly two years after President Donald Trump signed the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act into law, one of the law’s major components — the TMF, a government-wide loan program for IT modernization projects — has lost some momentum.

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The Senate last month proposed zeroing out the fund for fiscal 2020, while the House approved giving the fund $35 million, still a major departure from the $150 million the Trump administration proposed.

This summer, Kent told House lawmakers the TMF board she oversees has a plan to keep the fund solvent, but warned that limited appropriations would reduce the scope of future modernization projects.

No matter what the future of TMF looks like, Kent gave an overview Wednesday of some of the lessons the board has learned investing in agency IT projects.

Successful projects sparked collaboration between the CIO Council, agency chief data officers looking to implement the Federal Data Strategy and chief financial officers. At the heart of those conversations, these C-suite officials identified “common learnings” and practices that Kent said agencies can rely on through future projects.

“Every one of the initiatives had some element that was an all-of-government benefit,” Kent said. “What that means is a playbook came out of it, a tool for reuse, or it was a particular type of initiative where one agency started and others contributed.”

In one recent example, the TMF board loaned $3.5 million to the Labor Department to digitize the paper-based process the agency uses to issue labor certifications for employers looking to hire talent through work visas.

The project will also reduce paperwork for the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Last month, the board awarded $12 million collectively for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Agriculture Department to move away from legacy paper-based systems.

As for managing the pace and expectations of government transformation, Kent said there’s been some “creative friction” between what agencies have done traditionally and the innovation mentality some agency leaders, new to government, have brought to the table. But those creative differences, Kent said, can bring about productive conversations.

“Sometimes it’s fair to say, ‘How can we go faster?'” Kent said. “It’s fair to look at the question from a different angle. And in many areas of technology, we’ve actually seen the private sector move faster than we have on the government side. So that constant, what I’ll call creative friction, and keeping the question on the table, ‘Can we do better? Can we go faster?’ is healthy.”

Meanwhile, some pockets of government have shown progress in adopting emerging technology. The General Services Administration on Tuesday stood up its Artificial Intelligence Community of Practice, just a day before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill that would require the agency to create one.

The group will oversee the government’s rollout of AI technology, including robotic process automation, machine learning and natural language processing.

Kent and Anil Cheriyan, the head of GSA’s Technology Transformation Service, will serve as executive sponsors of the group. Steven Babitch, a Presidential Innovation fellow working in TTS’s AI portfolio, will lead the community of practice with coordination from the CIO Council’s Innovation Committee.

GSA made the announcement just before the HSGAC passed the AI in Government Act, which would task the agency with creating a similar organization. The bill would also require the Office of Management and Budget to identify the skills federal employees need to work with AI, then develop an AI-specific job series based on those findings.

With developments in AI technology “moving at a pace that is unprecedented,” Kent said federal employees need to have resources for a “continuous evolution of skills,” much like the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy that OMB has piloted.

“If we’re going to operate at this pace, we have to have a mechanism for federal employees to consume content, information about those things that are new in the environment and empower them to deliver on mission,” she said.

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