Former 18F Official Returns to Lead Next Phase of Technology Transformation Services

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The tech team is about delivering services to the public, not just disruption, General Services Administration alumni Dave Zvenyach told Nextgov. 

Among the familiar names taking new leadership positions at the General Services Administration is Dave Zvenyach, who served in several positions during the Obama administration, including executive director of 18F—the government’s internal tech consultancy—and assistant commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service.

Zvenyach returns to GSA as deputy commissioner for the Federal Acquisition Service and director of Technology Transformation Services, which includes 18F and other high-profile programs like the Centers of Excellence, Presidential Innovation Fellows and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, better known as FedRAMP.

As he settles back in at GSA, Zvenyach spoke with Nextgov about his priorities for TTS and how he envisions these programs working in the future.

The following discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: As someone who worked at TTS in the past administration, and now coming back—from the inside to the outside and back inside—what's been the evolution of TTS from your perspective?

Zvenyach: I think the short answer is that TTS has come a long way and has a really exciting future ahead of it.

One of the things that's really gratifying to see is that a lot of the work that started while I was at TTS has really started to pay dividends and to really be successful programs in their own right. And there are new ones that have emerged since I left that have shown some real value and are going to be able to deliver a lot of value to our partners.

So, short answer: We've changed in ways that are really, really positive for our partners and I'm really excited to see where we go going forward.

Nextgov: Let’s start with some of the programs that were around back when you were at TTS the first time. What are some TTS programs that are focused on changing the way federal agencies and programs buy things like technology, and how far have those programs come in the last four years?

Zvenyach: As you recall, I worked with the acquisition team at TTS. Over the last several years, they've really, really matured as an organization and had a lot of really significant impact.

By way of specific examples, 18F and the TTS Office of Acquisitions now are working on assisted acquisitions on behalf of our agency partners. We did a project with the HHS ACF, the Administration for Children and Families office. We worked on the [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program. And this is the sort of thing that, when I was here, we would not have been able to do.

We were able to work with our agency partner through the entire lifecycle of an acquisition. Starting with the problem definition, thinking about the requirements, doing some prototyping, doing the research, really derisking it for the agency, and really derisking it for the vendor, as well. Going through the acquisition process and getting to award I think in something like 60 days. And so, this is the sort of thing that from just a pure capabilities perspective, is what I was describing before, just things we could not have done [without] new capabilities more broadly.

Nextgov: So, what changed? What was it about the old working model that wouldn't have allowed this to happen?

Zvenyach: Well, some of it is just authority. We now have assisted acquisition authority where we did not before. We've really been working on our internal controls and making sure that we have the right people in the right places and the right processes to be successful as a program.

And that takes time. It takes effort. It takes close partnership with our Office of Policy and Compliance, [the Federal Acquisition Service], with the Office of General Counsel, the senior procurement exec, the [chief financial officer], to really get all of those things right. And then, ultimately, just get some more cycles working with agency partners to do this right.

It’s not so much that the idea wasn't around back then. But we're really able to do the work now in a more deep and meaningful way and seeing regular successes, which is pretty gratifying.

Beyond just the assisted acquisition work, we've continued our work around evangelizing good practices. So, 18F, working with the 10x program, put out a program called the De-risking Government Technology Guide, and that has had profound impacts. It's worked with agencies who are trying to figure out how they can adopt modular procurement methods, really specific tactical advice about how they can buy better, and has had a lot of profound influence, not just at the federal level, but also at state and local level, and even internationally, in terms of how to how to effectively buy technology.

That's on the consulting side of the house. We also have work on what we call the Solution side—things like the [Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program] that has been really focused on trying to bring more cloud service providers into the federal government, making it easier for industry to sell their tools that they sell to the private sector and sell them to the public sector, as well. There's a whole range of ways that we work with industry

Having been on the outside, I'm really, really gratified to see the work that TTS has done and excited to accelerate here.

Nextgov: Let’s talk about Solutions, then. What are some interesting moves you've seen on that side? What have been the major changes that have moved those programs forward?

Zvenyach: A couple of things. One is that I'm becoming more aware of some of the capabilities that have already existed. One that I just think is awesome is USA.gov.

We don't often talk about USA.gov, I think, as a TTS story, which is kind of interesting because it was actually the original thing that TTS did. USA.gov is the source for official information and trusted information about the U.S. government.

One of the things that was exciting to see in the first few weeks is that we have been working pretty aggressively with the administration around supporting the coronavirus response. Specifically, we stood up a website earlier this week for Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, and helping stand it up on USA.gov. Over the course of the last year, we serve something like 15 million inquiries about coronavirus and having information available for how people can get everything from their stimulus checks to their benefits, and really providing a source of information for the public.

I think what's really been exciting for me is to learn more deeply about the work that USA.gov has been doing.

Another interesting example, as I think about what TTS can do, there's a really cool thing that happened last week. The Chief Data Officers Council published its website, CDO.gov.

What’s really cool about CDO.gov is that it's a site that's hosted on Cloud.gov pages, so, that's part one. Part two is that it uses the U.S. Web Design System. Part three is that it actually also uses Search.gov, which powers something like 2,000-plus federal websites. It links to ... Resources.data.gov, which in part was funded by 10x, and was done in collaboration with the 18F team.

One of the things I find really great is that, here's the Chief Data Officers Council able to get its web presence up and TTS played many different roles and helping them be successful.

Nextgov: I'd like to drill into that a little bit. This idea that TTS can come in and provide templates and advice and really come in and help build stuff when it needs to just get stood up quickly and move. For more recent efforts like the coronavirus site, what kind of authority did you need from the administration to get that stood up? Was it something that they had to ask you for? Or is it something you all could just do and say, ‘Here, it's ready for you when you want it.’

Zvenyach: It's a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. We work with our agency partners; we don't do this by ourselves. And so, we make sure that we know that our agency partners have the resources available, and we work with them. In this particular case, we worked directly with the task force to make sure that they had the web presence that they needed.

I can't speak to what happened before I joined, but we work with our agency partners when we have the resources to make them available. And if we don't have the resources, we try to find a way to get those resources to the agency partner.

One of the things that I'm excited about, frankly, is that, whether it's 18F, whether it's the [Centers of Excellence], whether it's [the Presidential Innovation Fellows], whether it's Solutions, we now have a suite of different options for our agency partners to say, ‘I have a need. I have something that's important to the agency mission, or important to the enterprise, and I want to turn to TTS for help.’ And that's something that we can now do across the board, which is really exciting.

Nextgov: You mentioned that you can't speak for what happened in the last administration. But I do want to ask this question directly because it's been hanging out there for the last year. Where was TTS in helping stand up needed pandemic-related websites and tools? What authorities would have been required to get TTS more involved and why weren’t they?

Zvenyach: I don't think that we weren't involved, for what it's worth. I think that we had involvement with our agency partners. FAQ.coronavirus.gov is one of the projects that we've worked on with the HHS. So, there was work done. I know that we also have done some work with other agency partners.

Beyond that, though, I'm not going to speak to what happened before I joined.

Nextgov: Keeping on 18F, I also want to talk about the payback models and the culture. These aren't new concerns or criticisms for the program. First off, let's start with the culture. 18F has been known for pushing these counter-cultural approaches to getting work done in government. Do you think that's an accurate assessment? And if so, what effect has that had?

Zvenyach: My focus on the culture is going to be making sure we have the best outcomes for our partners and that we have really strong, supported teams.

One of the things that 18F does well, and frankly, GSA does well, is that we have an organization that has been focused on the work and making sure that we show up to work. There was a comment about what we wear to work. Well, what we wear to work is less important to me than what we're delivering for our agency partners. We're here to serve. That's our job and we're going to do that. That's our primary thing.

I think the perception around 18F is exclusively being focused about disruption, frankly, misses the point. We're here as public servants. Our job is to work with agency partners and deliver exceptional experiences for the public. As long as we're doing that, I'm good. If we're not doing that, then we need to work.

Nextgov: The other part of this is the payback model, which is something that everybody at GSA wrestles with at some point in time as a largely fee-for-service organization. So, how are the current payback models working for key programs and are you looking at any adjustments to those in the near term?

Zvenyach: We have definitely heard feedback about the cost. It's something that I'm looking at and we're talking about as a team. Where there are opportunities to adjust our operating model to allow us to serve agencies more completely, that that's my goal.

It’s something I am actively looking at. It's something that we've talked about as a team. I think there are valid issues. We're going to work through it and we're going to try to make sure that we're in the best position to serve our agency partners.

Nextgov: Can you give us some insight into the process for evaluating that? Are you bringing in consultants? Is it you round up all of the leadership for all the various divisions and put them in a room with the CFO? What does that process for finding the right model look like?

Zvenyach: Well, it's not involving consultants. I don't think we need to do that. We have all of the right people within GSA to do this work.

What it does involve, though, is working with [the Office of General Counsel], it involves working with the CFO. And, frankly, involves us understanding our partners and what we are delivering and how we're delivering in a way that's valuable to them. And looking at what our service offerings are, looking at making sure that they're serving real value to the agency partner and that we're resourcing it in the best possible way.

I know that sounds like hand-wavy. But I can tell you that there's a ton of work that had preceded me, and a ton of work that I'm benefiting from in terms of thinking about how we can adjust our operating models, how we can think about adjusting our cost structures in a way that is in service.

We’re not going to be free. And we think that we provide a ton of value to our agency partners. By way of a specific example, we're able to save millions and millions of dollars in recurring cost savings for our agency partners. When we're able to show that return on investment to our partners, our cost isn't top of mind.

I think where we need to think about our work is when the value is a little bit more diffuse and we have to think, ‘Well, how can we deliver this in a way that's more aligned with agency budget expectations, agency cost constraints,’ and we're committed to trying to find the best way to serve our agencies in that.

Nextgov: Another program that became a flagship for TTS while you were away is the Centers of Excellence. What are your thoughts on the program? Are you looking for any significant changes to it in the near future: new centers, new structure?

Zvenyach: I want to give a specific example because I think that this is such a great, great example of what CoEs have done really well.

One of the efforts that the Centers of Excellence have done is with the Office of Personnel Management. We have been doing that for a couple of years. We've been working around addressing some pretty thick enterprise investments, and trying to think about how we can move them away from mainframes, away from some of the legacy systems and into the cloud and bringing a product mindset to the work. That's really important because OPM is not the sort of agency that everyone thinks of as having huge impacts. But every single employee in the federal government comes through OPM, they're a huge central service hub for what we do. So, our ability from the CoE perspective, from the CoE’s work, is to help them modernize these really challenging and thick IT problems and get them into a place where they're able to focus on serving their mission needs. That has so many benefits to the public.

I think that type of work for CoEs—the really challenging, high cost of delay projects for agency partners—is the sort of capability that, frankly, I know CIOs need.

CIOs across the board need to have a trusted partner, trusted feds that they can work with to get them to solve some of these challenges and CoEs are there for that.

With respect to new centers, I'm looking frankly, at all of the above. One thing that I will tell you is that my focus is not on which boxes and all of that; it's on the people and the partners and making sure that we're doing as much as we can to serve our agency partners and that we have the right people within TTS to serve.

Nextgov: To clarify, are you suggesting that someday TTS could have a centerless Center of Excellence? More of a, ‘Come one, come all, we'll figure out your problem when you get here,’ rather than putting it into buckets?

Zvenyach: I'm not sure. I don't know. I'm not focused, candidly, on any one particular model at the moment. I'm trying to understand the agencies’ needs and really making sure that we're best situated.

Frankly, that's going to change over time. So, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that we're going to have to adapt and adjust, not just within CoEs, not just within 18F, but really across the board. We really have to think about: Are we serving our partners in the best way? If we are great. If there's more that we can do, then we need to make those adjustments to do that.

Nextgov: You’ve mentioned multiple times in this conversation that you're really engaging with the customers and focused on getting them what they want. How are you engaging with your customer agencies? Do you have any new initiatives coming out to engage with them more?

Zvenyach: One thing that we have done is this thing called the TTS Impact Summit.

The Impact Summit is cool because it's not just us talking. It's actually our agency partners, talking and hearing from other folks and hearing what's working and what's not. That was a really cool thing that happened before I joined, but I expect to see that continue.

In terms of outreach with agency partners, I'm really focused on deepening existing relationships that we have, as well as meeting new folks. One of the exciting things about a new administration is that there's some old faces and some new faces and a lot of opportunity to identify shared priorities and get into it together.

In terms of the specific outreach, a lot of it is just going to the CIO Council, chatting with CIOs understanding what the [deputy secretaries’] goals are, and really working with the teams on the ground to get the work done.

That, I think, is one of the real hallmarks of TTS’s work: We really try to meet the partners where they are and help serve them in a way that's going to make them effective. The only way for us to really do that is to, like I said, meet them where they are.

Nextgov: Any final thoughts you’d like to offer?

Zvenyach: I'll offer two things. The first is Login.gov, I want to give a shout-out to Login.gov. Before I left, we had some early agency adoption. At this point, we have 27 million-plus users working on Login.gov.

Login.gov is a secure authentication platform, really focusing on having a single user account for government. We are really excited about the future of Login.gov. And I'm personally pumped for where the team is at this point and where it's going.

The other one that I want to highlight is the PIF program, which has been doing a lot of really interesting stuff. We are constantly bringing in new PIFs. We're constantly bringing in folks with totally different perspectives. One thing that I'm really jazzed about is an effort that happens with the Navy.

The Navy was able to reduce its [authority to operate] cycle time by almost seven times, which for agencies, that's a really big deal. In this particular case, it was bringing a DevSecOps product mindset to bear within the Navy. But when you're seeing applications getting ATOed in seven-times less [amount of time] than before, that's a really significant impact.

What's great about the PIF program is that it shows up in all kinds of places, whether it’s the Navy with the ATOs, or we have Telehealth.HHS.gov and work with [the Veterans Affairs Department], there are a lot of different places where the PIF program has made a lot of impact.

So, what I'm really excited about with TTS is that we know that technology is going to be a major component of the administration's priorities and goals. I feel like we have the right capabilities in place to serve our partners.

And it's really fun. I'm excited to move it forward.

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