The creative license awarded in federal IT oftentimes pales in comparison to its corporate counterparts. But CIOs in both spaces are simultaneously tasked with maintaining the status quo while driving innovation.
However, creativity is hindered by budgetary limitations and a reluctance to experiment — a lethal combination for the goals of federal CIOs.
For Mark Schwartz, the former CIO of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the Department of Homeland Security, the stresses felt by federal CIOs stem from "over the shoulder" Congressional monitoring and procurement requests that seem to fall on deaf ears.
Still, Schwartz "loved" his time in the federal government. He served as the CIO of the USCIS from 2010 to June 2017 before resigning this summer to become an enterprise strategist for AWS.
In a conversation with CIO Dive, Schwartz explains that the government sometimes has an "inferiority complex" when it comes to enabling IT creativity and managing risk. One way to elicit more creativity is through modernization, and when CIOs are not equipped with the fundamentals to accomplish that, their vision could fall by the wayside.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Corporate IT sometimes has the liberty of risking creativity whereas federal IT is more regulated. Do you think that's true?
Schwartz: Yeah, in federal IT, you always have a lot of people looking over your shoulder. I don't want to jump to the conclusion that that's bad, just speaking without passing judgment. Not only did I have the leadership of my agency but the leadership of the parent agency, DHS, we also had an Inspector General, GAO, we had the federal IT community in general, and then of course, the press.
Everything you do is questioned constantly and that means that trying an experiment and having the experiment not succeed, it's hard to do. Someone will look over your shoulder and say 'oh that was bad, you shouldn't have done that.'
Whereas the private industry in general has come to realize that it's better to do very small experiments, you should never assume you know everything, it's better to try something small, manage the risk of it, and accept the fact that it might not work. Then move onto something else.
That's a really healthy attitude but it's very hard to do that in the federal government.
I'm not sure it's a bad thing in the sense that it's very important to have watchdogs in the government, it's very important to have transparency and make the public aware of what you're doing and sometimes the public or auditors are not in the best position to pass judgment on it and they do.
There are certain industries that are very, very similar to the federal government in their risk aversion and constant meddling, whatever you want to call it.
A lot of the technical infrastructure in the federal government is outdated. When you came into the role as CIO, was there anything within USCIS that you thought, "this has got to go?"
Schwartz: We standardized on essentially a four-year refresh cycle. We started replacing equipment and set it up so that we would replace everything within four years or so.
That's how we fixed the equipment in the field, but then when it comes to servers, networking equipment, data centers, yes, there was a problem.
The solution was to move to the cloud, which we did pretty aggressively.
Three-quarters of the federal IT budget goes to maintenance and part of that is patching. Do you think patching in the long run is beneficial or do you think those funds should go elsewhere?
Schwartz: That is a very tricky question. I think that's one of those statistics that get manipulated in ways beyond what it really means.
When you look at what actually goes into that bucket, typically it is all the changes you make to systems, so they keep doing what the agency needs them to do.
A lot of that maintenance money is really just adjusting the systems to change the way that the business of the mission changes. That is a good thing.
In fact, it's a very efficient way to meet a need. You don't need to build an entirely new system if you can re-purpose the old system.
I do think some of that maintenance spending is really misdirected. It really is duct tape and rubber cement, when it should be moving toward what we want the architecture of the systems to look like in the future.
With that said, with the Modernizing Government Technology Act just passing in the House and Senate, what would you have done with access to those kinds of funds?
Schwartz: It's speculation because I didn't have access to that money. But I think I would not have used it.
This is just my opinion, but I believe if you're spending a big chunk of money modernizing, then you're already taking the wrong approach.
I really think that a better way is to continuously be modernizing and transforming, it's just one of those things you just have to do because the industry moves on, the government needs to move on.
What did you find to be the biggest stressor as a federal CIO?
Schwartz: The biggest stressors have to deal with procurement and the procurement process.
For example, we would know that certain contractors hadn't come through for us in the past and yet the procurement process kept seeming to produce those contractors as the winners of the procurement.
We wanted to get access to the more innovative, small companies to use their services, but the procurement process made it difficult to get to them.
In your opinion, why do you think so many federal CIOs are leaving their position?
Schwartz: Ideally you want to be spending a lot of your effort on creation. I think we have a lopsided ratio in the government.
For every small amount we spend on actually creating stuff, we spend a huge amount on mitigating the risk of spending that one dollar on creation. That wears you down after a while, especially when your budget is being cut and the cuts are coming out of the creative side rather than the overhead side.