Ambitious Agency Modernization Efforts Demand Leadership Involvement


A panel of federal IT leaders said communication and training are also among the paramount requirements for successful digital transformations within federal agencies.

Implementing new hardware and software systems for a digital transformation within any given government agency is a painstaking, arduous undertaking, and requires a significant investment from agency leadership.

Speaking on a panel featuring several government technologists, Jeff Shilling, Chief Information Officer at the National Cancer Institute, discussed a host of holistic issues in digital modernization efforts across agencies, notably emphasizing the importance of getting the support of a department’s workforce when implementing new technologies in everyday business operations.

Referencing the NCI’s recent agency-wide efforts to revitalize their information technology and other operational software systems, Shilling emphasized the importance of having agency leadership communicate the benefits of new enterprise technology at a personal level.

“Once we started showing them some of the things they could do with this technology, showing them dashboards, showing them [NCI staff] actual data, showing them reports that before they couldn’t get...they were like ‘hey this is awesome,’ Shilling said Tuesday on the panel, hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center. 

Other officials working within various government agencies, including Philip Letowt, the Executive Director with the  Information Sharing and Services Office at the Department of Homeland Security, and Sean Wybenga, an informatics specialist at the Food and Drug Administration. 

Both officials agreed with Shilling’s take on promoting positive attitudes toward digital transformation among all levels of staff within an agency, especially within middle management.

“You can spend all the time in the world on a system, if nobody wants to use it, it's not going to be successful, bottom line,” Wybenga said. 

Panelists broadly concurred that streamlined communication and product demonstrations to promote office buy-in work to supplement training efforts to boost employee confidence and optimism in a new technology. 

Shilling also noted that among modernization efforts on an IT level, the NCI is just one of the federal bureaus looking to introduce more artificial intelligence into its imaging technology. He noted that the redesigned network at NCI is also a better environment to support integrations into broader internet of things capabilities. 

He said that the NCI began with a cultural focus in introducing these emerging technologies, the crux of which lies in reskilling an existing labor force to handle and appreciate new software and hardware.

“We want a continual process improvement mindset,” Shilling said regarding the NCI’s business operations culture. “This requires staff reskilling. They have to have the knowledge and tools to understand their role in the work and in the improvement process.”

Reskilling the federal workforce has frequently come up in recommendations surrounding digital modernization, with expert reports suggesting that providing training and support for longtime staff when introducing new technologies is universally beneficial for federal agencies. 

Shilling reiterates that along with training opportunities and communication, leadership investment––particularly within the office of the chief information officer––is crucial to seamless digital transformation in the public workplace. 

“The CIO is the leader of all the IT going on underneath him,” he said. “You need to show them [agency staff] at some level you have a vision for what the future is.”