OMB Official: We Need More Cross-Agency Collaboration Tools

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Mass teleworking due to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital government, including a lack of communication options for interagency collaboration.

The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating just how important a digital federal government is—both for citizens trying to tap into government services and for federal employees trying to meet their missions. But it has also shown the need for more cross-agency collaboration, according to the administration’s second-ranking IT leader.

From her new vantage point at the Office of Management and Budget as deputy federal chief information officer, Maria Roat said the biggest cross-government lesson from the pandemic has been the need to continue digitizing government services.

Roat stepped into the role of deputy federal CIO in May, making her the No. 2 federal IT leader under the current federal CIO, Suzette Kent, who is set to retire next month.

“I think the need to be digital was even more evident than people anticipated,” Roat said Wednesday during the IBM Think Gov Digital event. “Everybody’s got a mobile phone. Everybody expects that digital interaction, not just with their friends and family but with their government. I think this really put a big spotlight on that.”

At the Small Business Administration, where Roat previously served as CIO, the suite of digital tools the team had been building was essential to continuing operations through the mass telework required by the pandemic. Digital collaboration tools allowed teams and programs to interact internally and with each other.

“At the Small Business Administration, we had all those tools in place—all those collaboration tools,” including chat, video and document sharing, she said. “We had turned all those on. But I could see the usage—I had data and I could see the charts and I could see the usage and how it went through the roof. … Just watching it, for me, it was a win. I was really happy to see that.”

That said, the ability to securely and reliable collaborate with other agencies has been lacking.

“I’d really like to see more cross-government usage of the collaboration capabilities,” Roat said. “The same things I was able to do in my agency, why can’t I do that with another agency? I’m at the Small Business Administration, I’m interfacing with Treasury and interfacing with all these other agencies” but don’t have direct lines to communicate and work collaboratively.

Roat said the problem is not the tech, which has come far enough in recent years to enable cross-agency coordination. Instead, it will require a change in the way agencies think about working together.

“For me, it’s not a technology issue,” she said. “It’s the processes and the policies and records management and all those things that go with it,” something Roat now has an opportunity to work on from her position at OMB.

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