Megan Smith is the U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president. Smith—an engineer, entrepreneur, technology evangelist and former vice president at Google—spoke with Tom Fox about her views of government, including expanded engagement with Silicon Valley, as well as her prioritization of diversity.
Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is your primary mission?
A: Our mission is to advise the president and his team on how to harness the power of data, innovation and technology on behalf of the American people. We have three buckets of work. The first is to help ensure that America continues to be the best place in the world for science, technology and innovation.
The second area is support modernizing government and increasing technical capacity and expertise. We have Americans who helped build Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook and Twitter, so we are asking them to do a tour of duty as well as work together with our policy and technical colleagues already in government to update everyone’s skills and practices.
And the third is to unlock talent and solve our complex problems using new innovative methods.
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest differences between Silicon Valley and Washington?
A: One of the things that’s awesome about coming here is how incredible the culture is around mission, which is very similar to Silicon Valley. There are extraordinary people doing incredible work. I didn’t experience huge culture shock.
One challenge, though, is that some colleagues are not aware of the state-of-the-art tech innovation options they can employ. We need to share and collaborate more so we can upgrade much faster, such as connecting with each other using modern, efficient ‘communities of practice’ approaches and peer-to-peer learning.
Q: When you work with federal employees and leaders, do you find them to be fearful of risk-taking?
A: I feel people are open to new ideas. They have extraordinary responsibilities and very full plates. People are delivering services in real time. We’re trying to find creative ways to collaborate.
To do that, one of the most effective ways is scouting. We find someone in the federal or local government who has already figured out some amazing innovation, gain insights together and then help to replicate it broadly. This is a “scout and scale” approach. We ask: Who has already solved some aspect of this, where are they, who are they, what have they done, what results can we see that are having impact, what kind of budget did they use, what kind of approach did they take, and who would consider adopting this innovation?
Q: What is one of your big accomplishments so far?
A: A success of the president has been the creation of a culture of service in the technology sector, by bringing tech talent to work alongside career civil servants. Beyond specific initiatives, the fact that we have a Presidential Innovation Fellows program, an 18F team at the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Service means we’re bringing much more top technical talent into our government. The impact is incredible.
As one example, the U.S. Digital Service team has been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and has launched a new healthcare application. Approximately 75 percent of the people trying to apply online couldn’t open the application before it was fixed; and now, instead of the average time of 45 minutes to navigate the system, it takes just 10 minutes and veterans are getting the healthcare information they need.
Q: What leadership mistake have you made that taught you an important lesson?
A: One of the issues I have become even more aware of is diversity and inclusion, and the stereotypes or unconscious and institutional biases that I might have approached differently. We are doing a lot of work in this area.
Q: What do you do to check yourself on that front?
A: All of us need to get into conversations, ask questions, measure and publish data, and integrate emerging best practices. When there is a public event, have we considered who is on the stage? Are we including all Americans, including traditionally underrepresented groups like women and minorities? Are we representative in making sure that all the different voices are there and being heard? Are we making sure that people are speaking in meetings and asking questions? I try to push us all of be as mindful as possible about diversity and different viewpoints, and encourage my team to do the same.
Q: What should government leaders know about your team and your work?
A: Agency leaders who have not yet integrated these emerging tech resource teams as colleagues in policy, service delivery and solution-making would be surprised to know that technology folks would love to go to any meeting and they will add value. They will listen and they will say things that will be surprisingly useful.
Don’t think of that individual as the person who builds the website, but as an agile creative colleague who is going to bring a different mindset to any project you’re working on. Just pull them in. They are here to serve just like their other colleagues.