What the Federal Government Can Learn from Disney World: Q&A with Greg Godbout

Tourists crowd around Cinderella's Castle to watch a performance at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Tourists crowd around Cinderella's Castle to watch a performance at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP File Photo

EPA’s Chief Technology Officer Greg Godbout has big plans for the federal government, and a lot of it seems to follow in the digital footsteps of Disney World.

Two years ago, the most magical place on Earth stopped relying on pixie dust and turned to the techies.

Disney World began implementing an intricate billion-dollar system of electronic wristbands, called MagicBands, which provide the thousands of guests who enter the park every hour easier access to food, hotel rooms and rides. All the while, sensors embedded in the bands provide an endless stream of data for Disney’s staff.

Environmental Protection Agency Chief Technology Officer Greg Godbout says federal agencies could take a page from Mickey Mouse’s playbook as they seek to transform government services.

It should be noted, the Disney’s MagicBands effort was no wave-of-a-magic-wand effort. The project hit a wide array of roadblocks and seven years after Disney started working on them, they are still not perfect. Godbout said he expects similar challenges to befall the federal government. But that’s simply the price of change, he said.

Godbout knows a thing or two about fixing government. Before joining EPA earlier this year, he previously served as executive director for the General Services Administration’s digital fix-it team 18F.

Nextgov spoke with Godbout recently about his work in achieving a digital transformation at his own agency and the entire federal government.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: What was your transition like from 18F to EPA? And why did you decide to make the switch?

GG: The mission at 18F is to transform the way the federal government builds and buys IT services. Part of that mission is to help transform agencies. As we got 18F to a point where we had added all these services for agencies to use, I was like, now I would like to go into an agency and help transform the services of that agency using 18F --  to build the same sorts of services inside the agency.

Human health and the environment are very important to me. I have a daughter, a 10-year-old, and she was pleading with me to go to EPA. It was something my whole family could rally around.

NG: Was the transition challenging?

GG: It was more difficult coming into government fresh for the first time and getting used to it. When I was at GSA, I was a presidential innovation fellow and there were more things to learn. There are a lot of common problems and common successes across agencies, and so it's been very familiar to me. Eighty percent is similar and 20 percent is very different.

NG: What are  your plans for EPA?

GG: I'm a very big believer of strong, customer service-driven, user-centered [services], and understanding the whole holistic way that people interact with your system in order to properly build it out. Actually taking in that whole user experience. In doing so, you almost can't help but build great services. And then if you build great services, all of the things that make IT work really well start happening quicker. It's not a compliance issue. It's a great service that everybody wants use issue.

I came to EPA because I wanted to help the environment. I am not a scientist. I am not a biologist. But I can help the people in the programs that are do it more efficiently by providing them services that help them get going faster.

NG: What are the main projects or services you are currently working on at EPA?

GG: There are essentially five services. One would be the strategic sourcing, an agile acquisition vehicle. We are starting the process to set that up.

There's work we're doing to bring people in who are skilled at lean startup and agile methodologies, and have them as technical leads on projects. So to provide a service where we actually recruit and interview, that process is underway.

The third section is what I would call consulting services. We actually have members of our team right now that are embedded with program offices, helping them make the transition to agile and lean.

[The fourth is] the importance of architecture and roadmaps. What is the process to build out a system? People rarely hear me say this, but there are times you use waterfall.

[And the fifth is] actually bringing software developers into government and prototyping teams. So if a program is considering a tool, this team can go in and rapidly prototype something up so they can put their hands on it, instead of waiting years to get to it. It won't be the finished product and the team won't stay to build it, but you can take that prototype to acquisition and bring down the level of uncertainty and actually build things.

NG: You don’t often hear agile practitioners reference the waterfall methodology as a positive practice. How can it be helpful in certain situations?

GG: I'm a huge agile fan. I'm a Redskins fan, too, and it's like telling you what’s good about Dallas. Agile methodologies are perfect when you have unknown solutions and/or unknown problems.

Waterfall is actually good for the opposite of what people use it for, which is known solutions and known problems. Let’s say we were going to build an email system. We're probably not going to build it from scratch. We're probably going to select from some off-the-shelf components. We've all used email for so many years we probably know the features we want. In that situation, you would build the requirements up front, go bid them and get the lowest dollar possible for building something that’s become really a commodity.

NG: Has your experience at 18F has helped you at EPA?

GG: Yes, the whole purpose of 18F, in my opinion, is to do what we're doing here now. [18F is] set up to show that these things can be done inside a government agency. Coming here is really like the extension for me of that mission at 18F. I was able at 18F to learn how you do the acquisitions. How you do the hiring. I didn't know going into it. Having gone through it and worked with people and having now other people executing on that, we're reusing that knowledge to do it faster.

NG: What’s one particular project you’ve worked on at EPA that stands out to you the most?

GG: We learn by doing and we change by doing, so we immediately start with projects. When I first came here, the first one -- what is 21st-century technology-- that is E-Enterprise. It's actually run out of the CFO’s  office. We're building a modern way of having EPA. How it's going to work in the future? How do we implement and deliver in the future? And that to me is really exciting because it's forward thinking.

The other one would be its [hazardous] waste manifest [system]. This one’s pretty exciting because work is getting ready to begin. And that work will be piloting open source and all these new methodologies. And we’re doing it as we move in a very transparent way, so that people can see this happening.

NG: I know you haven't been at EPA very long, but have you come up against any challenges thus far?

GG: There’s all of these ideas and methodologies that are being put into practice and into play and it's different for people. That’s where the challenges fall in. People have been working for years and they think habitually what they've been doing becomes law. And how do you get people to look at something differently?

The other challenge is there’s a lot of complexity to government. And so you can't have people from the outside deliver on this. They're going to run into so many problems that were unnecessary for them to run into because there are already innovators here in government.

NG: You’ve talked a lot about wanting to make the public’s interactions with government as simple as booking a vacation. Can you explain this?

GG: I'm going to Disney this weekend. If you go to Disney World, they have what they call the Magic Bands, and it opens your door to your place. It tracks you around the park. In the future, you can pre-order your food at the restaurant and when you're like 100 feet of the restaurant, it will immediately put the order in for cooking.

[Banking online] is a digital service. It is different than a website. A website is just a part of a digital service. The most important word is not digital; it's service. All these things become a driver of the service. How can we make it better and better and better for the users? And I would like to see government go down that same road. I would like to not have to fill out forms three times. I would like to if I filled out a form once with my name and address and stuff, for it to prepopulate on other forms across government. I would like seamless ways for me to file taxes if I don't have a complicated tax system.

I feel like we have that expectation now [of seamlessness], and then we go interact with a government system, and we go, 'Hmm, why am I frustrated?' Even current systems that are fast aren't quite up to speed where they should be. And we get frustrated with them. We live in the digital era, so the services that are delivered today are digital services, and government needs to start thinking holistically about that.

NG: But the Disney wristband system took a lot of time and money, and ran into a lot of challenges. It’s still not finished.

GG: Their customers are thrilled with it. They can fit 5,000 more people in a park today because they rolled out that system. The experience at Disney today is much better. The quality of service is much higher. And what they built was a modular system that forever can be updated and they have that advantage going forward now.

So while it was expensive and difficult to do because it's a change, their struggles were people struggles, not technology struggles. And it's the same thing in government. The struggles for building out these systems is the change in how you do it and it changes everything.

NG: Do you think the government can undertake the same degree of transformation?

GG: I do, because I see it happening. The government went to the moon. I know it can be done. I see it happening all the time. I think, for example, IRS deserves a ton of credit for their ever-evolving ease of people doing electronic submissions and interacting with private companies for taxes. They're moving it forward. I can imagine an awesome future where you just click a button and you file your taxes because they already have your data.

We are all moving toward this. But how do you move toward this? People need to start thinking about API-first strategies. Because when we build out systems, we need to stop building them for the very specific use we think they're going to be used for. We need to make them so they can be interconnected between other systems. We need to start sharing data and doing analysis on data in a much larger scale inside the federal government.

NG: It sounds like you have a very broad perspective on this digital transformation, rather than simply focusing on EPA.

GG: Part of that is my personality. But the reality is, we're all interconnected. We're all in this together... This is part of me being an agile practitioner. In agile, you focus on: What is the North Star? What is the vision? Where are we going? You hear me talk a lot about the vision of how government can work. And then, you don’t worry much about the millions of steps to get there. You worry about the next step. So it's sort of saying, always remind yourself at the end of every sprint and at the end of every iteration: Where are we going? What’s the North Star? Has that changed? Are we still fighting for that? If so, what’s the next step we have to make?

Here I would say, the vision is about 21st-century environmental protection. How do we make that work? Because that’s our responsibility here. But I know at any given moment how it ties to this mission.