OMB Officials Tout Tech Office Transparency Amid Allegations of Turmoil

Ioan Florin Cnejevici

Officials within the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer say their team is working as it should in the wake of a report that suggests otherwise.

Officials within the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer are touting the organization's transparency, days after a Politico Pro report alleged the tech office was in turmoil. 

The report, which cites several current and former unnamed sources within OFCIO and an internal survey, suggests the office, which is part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is dealing with “a lot of infighting,” low morale, “poor communication and inconsistent policies.”

Matthew Cornelius, senior technology and cybersecurity advisor within OMB, rejected some of the allegations at AFFIRM’s President’s Management Agenda event in Washington.

“We are trying to be as open and as honest with the federal community as possible, which is why the staff at OMB are now being allowed to come out and speak to this,” Cornelius told attendees at the event. “We do our best policymaking when we let agencies experiment and when we learn from what they are doing, when we actively engage with them and really give them the flexibility and freedom to try. I think that’s where we are now and I think that’s a sort of healthy place to be.”

Cornelius explained that he’s noticed a natural “ebb and flow, or push and pull” in regards to OMB and policymaking. He said the office’s response to the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, in which outdated technology and cybersecurity blunders led to the exposure of millions of Americans’ sensitive personal information, was to “clamp down” on agencies in pursuit of a sense of control.

While he believes that reaction was warranted at the time, Cornelius noted the organization is reshaping how it works with agencies.

“This OMB—and Suzette Kent, my boss—have been very adamant about us being transparent and open in the policymaking process,” he said. “Now, [we are] much more comfortable letting agencies do what they need to do.”

Cornelius’ claims about OMB’s public-facing position do not align with what insiders told Politico Pro about OFCIO’s current internal sentiment.

Drawing insights from an internal February staff survey, data from an annual governmentwide report and interviews with six unnamed current and former OMB employees and three former senior federal officials familiar with the office, Politico Pro reported that “OFCIO employees are overwhelmed by changing and unclear priorities, disappointed with inaccessible leaders and confused by an org chart that's still partially undefined five months after its creation.”

Federal CIO Suzette Kent led an internal reorganization of OFCIO last November, which seems to be at least part of the cause for possible frustrations Politico Pro referenced inside the office. The publication obtained a summary of a survey that revealed “only 19 percent of OFCIO's 30 employees expressed satisfaction with their workplace in February, down from 50 percent in October, one month before the reorganization.”

Though the “turmoil has had limited effects as agencies carry out their own IT agendas," Politico Pro reported, "sources predict serious long-term consequences if OFCIO remains demoralized and distracted.” 

Despite the outward approach towards transparency, the Politico Pro report alleges that Kent has fostered “a closed-door culture” within the agency: "You are not allowed to email Suzette directly. You are not allowed to engage senior leadership directly. So it's very hard to move things up,” the report states, quoting a current OMB employee.

Though OMB did not make Kent available for comment on this story, the office’s Deputy Director of Communications, Jacob Wood, told Nextgov, “Kent, the OFCIO leadership, and everyone at OMB care deeply about employees and their morale. Any notion to the contrary is false.”

Wood said, like in any reorganization, OMB’s latest endeavor “has yielded some growing pains,” but employee morale and satisfaction saw increases in some areas on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

“Suzette and the OFCIO leadership team are actively engaged in ongoing efforts to improve operations and morale. This includes hiring additional staff and developing tools to support team members in their specific activities,” Wood said.

To Cornelius’ point, Wood also noted that in terms of external engagement, Kent’s team “has been purposeful in seeking input from agencies, industry and academia for IT Modernization, data accountability and transparency goals and multiple new policies under development.”

Wood said CIOs have expressed positive feedback about collaboration, involvement and open dialogue, all of which is occurring, he said.

Other panelists speaking with Cornelius, including Sanjay Gupta, the Small Business Administration's chief technology officer, did note positive experiences from engagement with OMB.

“My perspective of partnership with OMB has been a very positive one so far,” Gupta said. “It’s based on reasoning and it’s based on dialogue—open and transparent dialogue.”