“I wanted to make sure that the group itself was strong enough to go and take whatever that next step was going to be,” said Bob DeLuca, who will return to his position at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
After leading the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence program for two and a half years, Bob DeLuca was about to move on to a new job as deputy chief information officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when GSA Administrator Emily Murphy called him back.
Murphy needed DeLuca to hold down the fort at the Technology Transformation Services, a group of programs aiming to function as a central information technology hub for the rest of government, on a temporary basis after former Director Anil Cheriyan retired. DeLuca agreed to return and began his role as acting director in July.
Now, DeLuca is in his last week at GSA before he moves to FDIC Dec. 21. He’s been helping to transition leadership of TTS over to GSA Chief Information Officer David Shive, who will serve as acting director in addition to his role as head of GSA IT until a new permanent director is named. The TTS director job is a political appointee position.
Prior to his exit, DeLuca talked with Nextgov about his time leading TTS and the state of IT modernization in the federal government.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: How did you approach the director position knowing you were taking the role on a temporary basis?
DeLuca: Knowing that I was coming in for a decidedly short period of time, I did not intend to dramatically change the direction of TTS. [Former Director] Anil Cheriyan had provided a strategic plan, which he wanted to create what we call One TTS to sort of help unify what is happening in TTS. We find that TTS works best when we work together on activities … knowing full well that a permanent director will come in to provide potentially the same or different guidance, I did not want to create a whole brand new strategy.
My expectation and what I laid out to the group when I came back was that I wanted to look more inward at the group. I came back, I think it was early July, knowing full well there was an election coming in and the [permanent] role is a political appointee position. So the idea was that I wanted to help do whatever I could to strengthen TTS for whatever comes next, whether that would have been a second Republican or another Democrat administration.
Either way, I wanted to make sure that the group itself was strong enough to go and take whatever that next step was going to be. Instead of creating this extravagant, external-facing vision and new strategy, I wanted to sort of turn the eyes inside the organization to help create strength for the future.
How did this vision manifest? What would you say were some of the most important projects you worked on over the past few months?
There were a couple of different projects we had looked at. And one of the things that you may or may not have participated in yourself, is our TTS Impact Summit Series. So TTS is a very influential organization in government IT, but it's not well-known. I don't think the message has gone out.
We have a large number of fairly well-known brands in our group, so you have 18F, Centers of Excellence, you've got Login.gov and Cloud.gov and I can go on. There are many good, solid brands within the umbrella, but not enough people know that they're all part of this group called TTS.
So [we] created a plan to put together this Impact Summit Series where we can take the six focus areas that we, all across TTS, contribute to, and we brought our customers together. They wound up helping to tell the story with us, about things that our folks contributed to their success. We had conversations about it and kind of opened it up to all.
[TTS hosted seven TTS Impact Summit Series events between August and November 2020 with more than 2,000 participants, a GSA spokesperson confirmed.]
Talk to me about COVID-19. How did TTS adjust to the pandemic?
The thing about TTS is that the people are very forward-leaning, very smart, technologists, so while COVID is a terrible situation for our country, and for our citizens, I'm thankful that the folks that work here are highly skilled. They really adapted very quickly to working in this 100% remote environment.
There's a part of our group called 18F that is decidedly geographically disparate from the start. They were influential in sort of helping all of us to understand how to interact better with each other online through all the tools that we have.
But the team is remarkable. They're resilient and they've been able to really, with all of the danger out there from COVID and from all the additional requirements put on to folks, whether they're moms and dads with kids and online school...they’ve been able to continue to contribute as they did before.
In your last conversation with Nextgov, you talked about changes to the CoE program, specifically around how many CoEs should be running at the same time. How is initiative evolving?
CoEs are near and dear to my heart. I was one of the early leaders in the CoE—not the first, but I was early in the chain there. One of the only things I'm proud of at this point is the signing of H.R. 5901 … Very excited about that, it helps to codify the CoEs.
But I think that the CoEs are still … We’re in a maturing phase right now. So I started in 2018, and sort of my first gig was helping to run the CoEs. And we had a different approach then, than we do now. So at the time, there were five centers, and the expectation at that point was, if you're going to bring in the Centers of Excellence, you’re bringing all five centers at once.
Which, great. Amazing results, amazing reception. We really did well with the [Agriculture Department] team doing it that way. The next step was [the Housing and Urban Development Department]. Again, we're getting to where we need to be there now. We're in transition to implementation, probably about five or six months ago which is great, and I think some amazing results are gonna come out of that too.
But after the HUD engagement, there was a change in guidance in that maybe we’re limiting a little bit of the marketplace of the CoEs. First of all, it's expensive to bring in multiple different teams to do multiple different projects at one time. And second, it could be hard for smaller or mid-sized agencies to handle that much change at one time.
Now, we've focused on maybe one or two centers at each place. It doesn't sound like a big change but it is a massive scale difference. For agencies like USDA and HUD that have significant budgets and capacity from a talent perspective, they can handle that for sure. But when going into a small or mid-sized agency … They're already working on modernization and then you're bringing another team in with … feds and vendors. Too much change at one time can be difficult.
You are assisting Chief Information Officer David Shive as he takes on the acting director position at TTS, in addition to his role as CIO. What advice are you giving him?
Dave is a great leader. He's created a great organization within the GSA IT group. The one piece of advice I would give him and I've already given him is to listen to the people that are living and breathing this every day.
There are some amazing people, amazingly talented people in TTS. I'm thankful every day for how awesome they are and how dedicated they are to the mission, and my advice to him is to listen to them. They have broad experience, they have very deep experience in their individual fields, and to take their advice and rely on it. Don't always accept it, but listen to it, really be deferential to the information you get. A lot of people have dedicated enormous amounts of their time and their lives to this mission and their advice has steered me right many, many times.
What would you say to others across the government who are looking for IT modernization help but aren’t quite sure how to approach TTS?
I would say to reach out to TTS, for sure. The easiest thing to do would be to have a conversation with them … TTS has folks in the group that have deep experience doing this work, and I think that they're here to help you build, buy and deliver wonderful solutions.
Could you go out and go straight to a vendor to get this work? Probably. But if you want to reduce the risk, and increase your chance of success, I think you should have a conversation with the folks at TTS. They have broad-based experience, both in the government and out of the government. They can, early on in your process, identify risk factors that you may or may not be able to see, and you should try to take advantage of that.
Talk about how you see the state of IT modernization across the federal government What are the defining characteristics of that effort?
One of the things that I've been impressed about, again, more broadly, not even just specific to TTS is the direction people are going into more of a human-centered design. Really looking at, not necessarily just the IT nature of the work.
Sometimes, I guess in my past, IT has been forced to be the change agent for whether I was in business or for the agency or whatever. But I think that it was a difficult spot for the IT folks to be in. But I think now, I've seen more of, sort of, I don’t know if you should call it business-led development, but it's definitely more … You're incorporating all sides of the transaction, and I think that it eventually, it does lead to better outcomes for the citizen, outcomes for the workers. Because you're able to take into consideration everyone's equities in the transaction. So I think it's attempting to get better usage, and then I think overall better outcomes.