Steven VanRoekel is the acting deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget as well as the federal government’s chief information officer. He is engaged in technology advancements and crafting the president’s second-term management agenda. VanRoekel spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. How would you describe your leadership style?
A. Hire great people, give them measurable and understandable objectives and, to some extent, get out of their way. I’m inclined to advocate for them and run down field to make sure they’re set up for success. If you follow that formula, amazing things happen. If you understand people’s motivations and their skills, you can harness those with the right set of objectives to get the job done.
Q. What are your goals for the administration’s second-term management agenda?
A. Smarter, more effective government--and getting things done so Americans can step back and say, “Wow, the government is spending my money wisely and doing things in a way that is effective.” It’s important to keep our eye on what Americans will notice. They sometimes walk away from an experience saying, “Government is too big, it’s too complex, it’s not well managed.” We need to streamline those experiences. If you can track your passport application the way you can track an Amazon package, or if you can run transactions with a focus on customer friendliness, it ends up not being about big government or government inefficiency.
Q. What is the role of information technology for government?
A. The investment in technology was initially seen as discretionary as opposed to a strategic asset. In the private sector, technology and innovation are the way to connect with customers, control quality and inventory, market your product and get feedback. In the public sector, it hasn’t always been that way. Government grew up with the idea that you check your email or store a file in a digital filing cabinet, but not thinking about connecting to Americans in any way, not providing better service and not developing new solutions. We’re in the midst of that inflection point.
Q. What are you doing to ensure government IT systems work better?
A. My IT agenda centers on three major themes: innovate, deliver and protect. Innovate is how we provide a 21st-century government. How are we doing things in new ways that make us more effective? Deliver is really about efficiency. In a flat or declining budget environment, how are we able to do more with less money? That’s about finding savings throughout agencies’ IT portfolios and understanding that to make an effective enterprise, you need to be able to stop what’s not working and be maniacal about duplication. Protect is making sure that wrongdoers don’t get access to sensitive information and that we keep systems safe and secure.
Q. How do you deal with the risk aversion that permeates government, particularly with IT?
A. In the federal IT space, and broadly in government, we have an environment where it’s really hard to take risks, even smart risks. In IT, it’s centered on very large projects that go on year after year. No one wants to be the person that takes a risk and fails. Part of the answer is showing people the art of the possible. The solution is not about these big multi-year, monolithic solutions, it’s about leaders in government asking their people to show results in 90 days and then in 60 days. Let’s get some customer-facing projects running quickly and then rapidly iterate, learn as we go and embrace continuous improvement.
Q. Are there ways to improve cross-agency collaboration?
A. We’re still in a state where not every agency is running the same email system or has one way of buying a mobile device. But we’re making really good progress, and I think the opportunity exists to continue looking at shared services across the government to drive efficiencies.
Q. What mindset should federal leaders adopt to create greater efficiencies?
A. If you look at the way you drive value in a corporate environment, it’s about continuous improvement. How do I wake up every day and do things better than the day before, and how do we get agencies, departments and employees to think about this? It requires leaders to look at what’s working and what’s not working, then double down on what’s working and stop what’s not working.