President’s Management Agenda Is All About IT Modernization

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Administration leaders unveiled the agenda in Kansas City, Missouri, promising success in IT modernization efforts where others have failed.

The Trump administration released its management agenda Tuesday, which centers on three focal areas: mission, service and stewardship. While the agenda is meant as a roadmap for the administration’s management priorities, the paths to achieving those goals are almost entirely based on technology.

“To move us from vision to action, the president’s management agenda focuses on three key drivers of transformation,” Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said during a rollout event in Kansas City, Missouri.

All three drivers have distinct technology angles, including modernizing the government’s aging infrastructure, using data to make better decisions and ensure transparency, and rethinking the federal workforce, both in how employees are trained and where jobs can be automated.

“We’re not inventing something wholly new,” she said. “What we’re doing is focusing on getting ‘er done. We’re focusing on execution.”

The key difference between this administration’s efforts and the those of the past are the questions being asked, Weichert told Nextgov in an interview after the agenda’s release.

“The time is right for asking fundamental questions about what and how government should perform its services. There aren’t questions we can’t ask about why things can’t change,” she said. “The simplest thing that we are doing differently is asking different questions and saying, ‘Why not’ or ‘How might we?’ instead of, ‘We can’t automate this business process.’”

A specific example of this is the administration’s work “retooling people,” Weichert said. Past administrations have been reticent to look at changing the nature of the federal workforce, she said. By examining that issue, the Trump administration believes it can make real reform happen. And they’ve discovered new issues along the way.

“In the private sector…we’re talking about robotics and business process automation and I was really surprised at how little that conversation was happening in government,” Weichert told Nextgov. “What I discovered was it was the people issue that got to the heart of that. And then, when I dug into that, there was also a data issue around really how many people were affected and how might we redeploy them.”

“Instead of saying we have to just accept things the way they are, what is different now is we’re saying we have the appetite for change—the whole country has an appetite for change,” she said.

Tony Scott, the last person to serve as federal CIO in the Obama administration, applauded the effort, though added that good ideas alone won’t be enough to affect real change.

“There will be any number of roadblocks. Some things that you want to do require legislation to do. Some can be done by executive order; some can be done by just leadership, generally … It requires big ideas and bold action to get some of these things going,” he said. “But there’s also a learning curve that everybody goes through in government—as I did. And some of the things that you really want to get done take a little bit more effort than wishing it so or coming up with the big idea.”

This is something about which he’s had specific conversations with Weichert and the current federal CIO Suzette Kent, Scott said.

Weichert said the documents released Tuesday cover the broad strokes of the management agenda but there is more to do. Weichert said she and the other officials wanted to listen to Kansas City’s federal employees while they were in town and take their ideas back to Washington.

Later in the day, Weichert and GSA Administrator Emily Murphy headed to an Agriculture Department facility to learn more about some of the roadblocks staff face, as well as interesting process and technology ideas to help mitigate—or resolve—those issues.

The Agriculture Department is also the test case for the administration’s new GSA-based Centers of Excellence, which will work directly with agencies on modernization efforts surrounding cloud, infrastructure optimization, customer experience, contact centers and service delivery analytics. The new centers are cited as a pillar of the management agenda.

“Instead of letting technology be the driver of bad processes, it’s taking the processes we want, the business uses we want, the business rules we want, and then taking the IT expertise that GSA is gathering either through the federal workforce and through the best practices from the private sector and re-engineering our systems to support the business process that we want,” Murphy told Nextgov. “So, we get that customer service result. That we get to deliver for taxpayers. That we make it easier for agencies to have their employees engaged in high-value work, rather than repetitive, paper-based work.”

The agenda did not touch on how the Office of American Innovation—the White House office led by Jared Kushner that cultivated the Centers of Excellence project—would coincide with the efforts of the broader government led by OMB. The only mention of the office in the document is a passing reference in the second cross-agency priority goal on leveraging data, in which it is listed as a “potential participating partner.”

During congressional testimony last week, Weichert noted the office’s important leadership on major IT issues to date but said that OMB—now well-staffed with IT officials—would be taking the lead going forward.

Weichert told Nextgov the office will continue to act as a “catalytic engine” on federal IT modernization efforts but declined to go into specifics on what its portfolio will look like going forward.

“They will continue to work with us on that. But we are definitely, with the launch of the president’s management agenda and the launch of the Technology Modernization Fund and the centers of excellence, we’re in the execution phase,” she said. “This is a journey we will be on and we will be working as a team across the executive branch.”

The agenda notes this journey is a long one and will take more time than any one president is allowed to stay in office.

“The vision for reform must be multi-generational, enabling the federal government to adapt to changing needs over time,” it states. “We cannot pursue short-term fixes only to see government quickly become outdated once again. Deep-seated transformation takes time and will not happen in one or two years.”

“We didn’t get where we are overnight; we’re not going to solve these problems overnight,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for public sector at the IT Alliance for Public Sector. “We need to put ourselves on a new trajectory, we need to think about how we transition, and they saw this effort as something that should last beyond their administration.”

Hodgkins said the administration not only has the right view of this but also has a good plan of attack.

“I think they took the appropriate long-view approach to this. And then they began to look for bright spots that they can make short-term gains with,” he said.