Early signs suggest federal agencies may be on the cusp of a significant leap forward.
Generally speaking, the governing team being assembled by the Biden administration has been marked by calm competence and a lack of major controversy. There are always appointments that spark debate, but overall, the transition has been relatively free of drama. At the same time, we are witnessing another less-noticed but significant transition that might be called the accession of the digital transformers.
Over the last 25 years, each successive administration has taken “e-government” and technology to the next logical level beyond that achieved by its predecessor. The progress has been consistent and almost entirely non-partisan. But it has never moved fast enough to keep pace with the world in which government must operate, let alone the marketplace on which it so depends. While it is too soon to say for certain, early signs suggest that we may be on the cusp of a significant leap forward.
First and most obviously, the nearly $2 billion contained in the American Recovery Act recognizes the abject need to modernize the government’s technology capabilities. Equally important, though less discussed, are President Biden’s early executive orders around the collection, analysis and sharing of data, including across programs and agencies. The funding and orders open the door to entirely new and innovative approaches to the execution and management of any number of government operations, including public benefits programs.
Second, look at who is being placed in the relevant positions. Across agencies, veterans of the government’s digital initiatives—including the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration’s 18F technology and design consultancy—have been elevated to positions of significant influence and responsibility. There’s Eric Hysen, former head of the U.S. Digital Service, now the Homeland Security Department’s chief information officer. Robin Carnahan’s appointment as GSA administrator is another excellent example. She has a lot of experience at various levels of government but, at the federal level, her reputation largely grew from her role as a leader in early digital transformation initiatives and one of the architects of 18F. And they are not the only ones. The digital service and 18F DNA is evident in virtually every agency. With the Technology Modernization Fund backing them up, and the willingness and ability to re-engineer and modernize not just technology but the business processes behind it, the opportunities for change are unprecedented.
Third, perhaps the most interesting appointment yet is that of Michael Brown to be the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and technology—arguably the most influential acquisition job in government. He comes to the job with an extraordinary resume, just not one normally associated with that role. A former CEO of Symantec and the current head of the Defense Innovation Unit, he does not have the traditionally deep roots in the national security ecosystem and therefore brings to the job somewhat different perspectives than the norm. Indeed, while most of the discussion surrounding his nomination has centered on his expertise in cyber and in using technology to counter threats from China and elsewhere, too little attention has been paid to what his experience at DIU could mean for how the Pentagon accesses, adopts and adapts to new technologies and new ways of doing business. That could have significant implications for not just how the department buys, but how it develops, trains, and organizes its acquisition workforce, and how the critical vendor community goes to market.
None of this should come as a surprise. It’s an extension of what we saw throughout the Biden-Harris campaign and from the transition policy teams. But where organizations like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (and its agency counterparts), or alternative acquisition strategies like Other Transaction Authority, may have been largely out of the mainstream until recently, they are now increasingly smack in the middle of it all. The new appointees are in positions to drive meaningful, sustainable, change on any number of levels.
As is true with any incoming administration, the Biden administration’s success will depend in large part on officials’ ability to engage and energize people, both inside government and across the diverse contractor community, as well as others who will be critical players in affecting change. But there is no doubt that the table is being set for change, that there is a new and palpable energy among those at the table. History has shown the early energy of any administration ebbs as lofty goals give way to practical, day-to-day realities, sometimes for good reason. But for those of us who’ve been around government for a long time, the prospects for meaningful change are actually pretty exciting.