Recoding Government: Finding the Tech Change Agents Who Drive Federal Innovation

President Barack Obama // Carolyn Kaster/AP

In 2007, when Barack Obama laid out his vision for an administration under his rule, the Illinois senator promised hope and transformation for the nation. But for federal employees, long the target of ridicule and name calling on Capitol Hill and by the general public, the most welcome news might have been his pledge to “make government cool again.”

As Obama’s presidency is drawing to an end eight years later, Nextgov decided to explore whether that coolness factor ever realized. In one sense, yes. Innovation has been at the forefront of the Obama administration, enticing Silicon Valley technologists and innovators to consider public service. Initiatives like the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the startup-like 18F within the General Services Administration have helped bring in the best and the brightest technologists.

But more important; there’s been a change in the perception of government roles. Where federal employees were once seen as bureaucrats and paper pushers, thanks to new technology, government employee job functions are transforming.

Nextgov’s “Recoding Government: Changing Roles in Federal Innovation” set out to explore how certain technology roles have changed and to identify those pushing the envelope in data science, development, user experience, project management and cybersecurity. These innovators know that to stay relevant, they need to continue developing their skills and be mindful of the changing times and fast-evolving technology.

Download the report here.

The Project Manager

Rusty Pickens, senior adviser for digital platforms, Bureau of International Information Programs, Department of State

By Jack Moore

Unlike data science or user experience, project management may not be a cutting-edge career field in the federal government. But the role is undeniably in transition. Thanks to an influx of new talent schooled in new disciplines like agile development, the traditional paper pusher is transforming, too. Instead of massive plans plotted out before undertaking a big project, development shops following agile methods are encouraged to think small at first, come up with a minimum viable product and then keep rolling out new functionality based on user feedback.

While more titles like “team lead,” “Scrum master” and “product owner” are starting to pop up on business cards of bureaucrats, traditional approaches to program management — exhaustive, cautious agency planning — still tend to look a lot like the so-called waterfall approach to managing big IT projects. Still, the two schools of thinking don’t have to be at odds. Take it from Rusty Pickens, senior adviser for digital platforms in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. Pickens, who joined State from the White House last year, has a resume straddling both sides of the purported divide: He is certified as both a project manager professional (by the Project Management Institute) and as a “Scrum master,” the term favored in agile circles to describe a project’s informal manager. Pickens, whose background is in IT operations, is a big believer in leveraging cloud computing and agile software development to modernize the federal government’s IT infrastructure. At State, Pickens says he’s taking a crack at updating several of the platforms used by public diplomacy staff to engage with international audiences. That’s linked with a sister effort to collapse the department’s myriad embassy websites down to the WordPress platform and into a single, standardized design. His team is also working a mobile-first approach to rethinking digital productivity and collaboration tools “really aimed at trying to help the public diplomacy staff work faster and smarter and empower them out in field to get their job done on their phone,” Pickens says.

At the White House, his pet project was overhauling the president’s correspondence system, the catch-all system used for filing letters written by members of the public to the president and the first family. The previous system “was an older, legacy sort of managed service,” Pickens says. “We had really, really outgrown it. It was sort of crumbling under the weight of all the correspondence.” Pickens’ team rebuilt the system on top of a customer relationship management platform — Pickens says he thinks of it as “citizen-relationship management” — in the cloud.

Agile, cloud — these are still new concepts in government. For now, job No. 1 for the 21st-century project manager may just be good old-fashioned communication. “Half of my challenge as a technology professional is just evangelizing … and educating people” on how new processes work, Pickens says. Describing new projects to IT teams, “what they’re used to are really big, heavy, hefty, expensive contracts that maybe have a five- or 10-year life cycle,” Pickens says, and “they may not ship a single line of code until three quarters of the way through the project.”

The agile approach is all about working with the end-users and stakeholders — the people who are actually “hands on keyboard,” Pickens says — from the beginning. “The lightbulb comes on at the end of that sprint or at the end of a major release where it’s maybe two weeks or three weeks or a month,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, you’re bringing shippable, working software back to those folks.”

“What you’re building is for them and they are the ones that you are seeking to delight…A byproduct of that is that leadership starts to become happy when the user base is happy.” -Rusty Pickens

The seemingly catch-all project management career is already a pretty amorphous concept. The National Academy of Public Administration in a June 2015 report said the discipline is under-appreciated by senior-level management in government and supported a recent push on Capitol Hill for legislation to standardize the role and make it its own discrete federal job category. “Frankly, on the federal side, it is all sort of running together,” Pickens says. “If I was speaking to a team of career civil servants, I think in their minds, product, program and project are sort of all analogous.” Thanks to the rapid pace of technological change, the project manager role may continue to evolve as well.

But as agile processes take root, Pickens says he predicts the role of project manager will shift into something more akin to a product manager. In the traditional ways of doing business, project and program managers work to keep their team organized, stay on track of important project milestones and file all the proper paperwork — all in a bid to keep the boss satisfied. A product owner, following an agile playbook, is beholden to the users, Pickens says. “So what you’re building is for them and they are the ones that you are seeking to delight with the way that this thing works or getting the feedback directly from them so it makes their lives easier,” Pickens say. “A byproduct of that is that leadership starts to become happy when the user base is happy.”

Originally published by Camille Tuutti at on March 3rd, 2016.

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