The Next Generation Federal IT Manager

Kimberly Hancher, CIO, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
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Kimberly Hancher, CIO, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Under the auspices of ACT-IAC, the Human Capital Shared Interest Group (SIG) recently wrote a report focused on the question of which skills and competencies the future federal IT manager will need to be successful. The findings of this report highlight the following skills and competencies as needed for current and future IT managers:

• Manage a Multi-Sector Workforce.
• Manage People & Projects Effectively.
• Hire Strategically.
• Develop the Workforce.
• Understand the Business Environment.
• Focus on Client/Customer Service.
• Understand Technology Trends.

It will take planning and commitment to develop managers and high-potential employees within the workforce.  However, certain steps can be taken to help agencies address gaps and develop future IT leaders such as:

• Instituting career modeling.
• Creating a long-term leadership development program.
• Thinking strategically about resourcing candidates.

The federal information technology community faces many challenges. This is partly due to the fact that the field of information technology itself evolves rapidly. It is also due to the fact that federal personnel rules and procurement regulations affect the feasibility of strategies that IT managers have available to them.

The explosion of the Internet as a resource for agency programs brought with it an increasing emphasis on cyber security and use of the agency’s technology as a tool for communicating with the public about the agency mission. At this point, federal agencies began to directly compete with the private sector for IT talent, often unsuccessfully, as the broader economy experienced a technology boom.  As a result, agency CIOs became increasingly reliant on contractors for IT support, taking advantage of the private sector’s ability to pay more for technology experts than agencies could typically afford. Most agency IT operations were truly a multi-sector workforce, with a relatively small number of federal employees overseeing a large number of contractors. 

The last few years have seen acceleration on the trend of acquiring services from third parties, with the emphasis on “the cloud” as a source of both data and capability. At the same time, budget pressures have driven agencies to professionalize their internal IT project management capability to both reduce costs and risks. Budget pressures have created a bias against large new customized IT systems deployed through the traditional “waterfall” methodology. The non-technological side of agency CIO operations is also in a great deal of flux. Attrition is at an all-time high with an aging federal workforce that is retiring at an accelerated pace.

The Federal IT Manager of the Future Must: Discussion

As a generalization, Federal IT Managers need to transition from a role of designing, building and operating the services they deliver to their agency customers to a role of a broker of services that are increasingly delivered by others. The two most significant drivers of this change are:

Budgetary pressures— Congress and OMB are discouraging costly, home-grown, unproven, customized, immense systems secured through a unique procurement. Cloud computing— Software, infrastructure, platforms, desk-tops, and back-end services as well as knowledge and capabilities are accessed relatively easily through “the cloud” and “as-a-Service”. Budgetary pressures and trend in acquiring IT from third parties suggest that a number of non-IT competencies, knowledge, and skills are an important part of an IT manager’s capabilities. 

Communicate and collaborate—IT managers need to be able to communicate clearly with both their internal clients as well as their external service providers.  Internally, they need to work closely with their internal clients to understand their business needs and develop requirements that meet those needs. 

Consult—IT managers need to have more than a superficial understanding of the programs of their customers, so they can better intuit internal client needs, and appreciate the context in which those needs are expressed. These consultative skills are necessary in order to ensure that they are acquiring precisely the IT that clients really need to get, no more and no less.  They need to communicate clearly so that ambiguity or uncertainty around their requirements does not pose unnecessary risk to potential external service providers, who mitigate that risk by increasing prices to the government.

Recommendations

The explosion of innovation and rapid change in the IT marketplace means that there are always new opportunities emerging that may offer benefits to the federal IT manager’s agency. To become aware of, appropriate evaluation, and potentially take advantage of these innovations requires both an intellectual curiosity on the part of the federal IT manager and a corresponding willingness to seek out opportunities to be exposed to new IT developments.

The recommendations outlined below are a few steps that CIOs can undertake to address current and future challenges: 

• Institute career modeling.
• Define career paths and tracks for IT positions.  Be sure to include technical tracks for those who are not interested in managing people.
• Encourage and support rotational assignments within the government as well as the vendor community.
• Create a long-term leadership development program.
• Focus on soft-skill development such as interpersonal, communications and team-building.
• Ensure that participants gain experience with the federal budget and procurement processes.

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