Champions of change, powered by IT
- By Alyah Khan
- Jul 07, 2011
Haley Van Dyck likens her government job to being part of an online swat team. She’s not knocking down people’s doors with special weapons, but she is confronting complex and dynamic issues in the virtual space head-on.
A member of the new-media vanguard, Van Dyck said she and her colleagues share the primary duty of using technology to transform the way agencies engage with the public.
“It shouldn’t be harder to communicate with the government than it is to communicate with friends and family,” said Van Dyck, who was director of citizen engagement at the Federal Communications Commission before beginning a new job in June as director of digital strategy and engagement at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But Van Dyck’s task is not always simple or straightforward, mainly because the job lacks the benefit of lengthy institutional experience or a stock recipe for success. As IT continues to reinvent how government can function more efficiently and better serve citizens while protecting their privacy, a handful of relatively new federal executive positions are guiding those changes.
Citizen engagement managers, performance improvement officers and chief privacy officers are three such roles. As the following profiles show, the individuals holding those jobs operate in environments marked by rapidly changing technology and a shifting landscape of policies and regulations. Adaptability is paramount, but so too are results and an unwavering focus on the agency mission.
Most of the officials interviewed said dealing with change — whether driving it or responding to it — is one of the central and toughest aspects of their jobs.
“A lot of what we’re doing is very new and has never been done before at the agency,” Van Dyck said. “It’s very different from the way government works and has worked in the past.”
Citizen engagement managers: Helping the public have its say
Van Dyck arrived at FCC after working on President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign in Chicago. She came to the agency as one of two people on the new-media team, which later grew to a total of 11 members, making it the largest team of its kind outside the White House.
FCC’s new-media team is not part of the IT department or the communications office but stands on its own, which allowed Van Dyck and the other team members to take a hands-on approach to working in all corners of the agency.
Most recently, she and her team were focused on redesigning FCC.gov, the agency’s main platform for citizen engagement, to make it more citizen-friendly by emphasizing plain language and limiting the use of acronyms.
The FCC website had not been changed in more than a decade. “I didn’t just want to come in and do a facelift,” she said. “I wanted to restructure the way the website works.”
One of the site’s new features is the “Take Action” bar at the top of each page, which provides users with a quick and simple way to file a public comment or consumer complaint, join an online discussion, or give feedback to the agency.
That approach exemplified Van Dyck’s efforts to reach two of her goals: to lower the barriers to citizen participation in government and make FCC.gov a consumer resource.
The latter effort also included figuring out how to open up FCC’s rulemaking process. Van Dyck said the team is writing citizen summaries for agency rules to make them less wonky and easier to understand, a first step toward increasing involvement.
Mark Drapeau, director of innovative social engagement at Microsoft, said determining how to get feedback from citizens is an issue leaders will have to tackle now that agencies have ventured into the social media landscape.
“Every agency has a Twitter presence, a YouTube presence, Flickr photos.… It’s a real question: Now that you’re all on all these platforms, what the hell do you do with them?” Drapeau said. “How do you really use these new forms of media to activate citizens to take part in their government?”
There is value in bringing social media experts from outside the government to help answer such questions. Contract employees can bring “fresh eyes and a breadth of expertise” that a longtime fed might not possess, Drapeau said.
That’s where Jenn Gustetic comes in. Associate director for strategic engagement and communications at Phase One Consulting Group and a Gov 2.0 specialist, Gustetic has worked as a contract employee for the Transportation Department and several other Cabinet-level agencies. Her work involves developing plans to execute the Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative.
She describes herself as a relationship builder, adviser and change manager. For her clients, Gustetic facilitates working groups and weighs new policies, guidance documents and programs. “A lot of what we do is bringing people together and creating paths forward,” she said.
Her experience as a former grants specialist at the Transportation Security Administration and now a contract employee at DOT allows her to understand the challenges both parties face.
In the short term, Gustetic said her company aims to have each of its open-government clients create one innovative initiative before the end of the year.
As for the future of social media, she said there are a lot of best practices that could be shared among agencies and she expects them to continue experimenting with different tactics.
“Every day is going to be learning something new,” Gustetic said about her job.
Performance improvement officers: Fighting for a seat at the management table
Elizabeth McGrath has spent more than two decades at the Defense Department. She started out in an internship program in the supply chain business and steadily worked her way up.
The experience gave her the opportunity to learn what DOD does by actually doing it, she said.
McGrath now fills two important and complementary roles as DOD’s deputy chief management officer and performance improvement officer.
In her deputy position, she leads the effort to better synchronize, integrate and coordinate the department’s multitude of business operations, from acquisitions and logistics to workforce and financial management. As PIO, she makes sure DOD has the right performance, output and outcome measures in place. Her duties include providing acquisition oversight of business IT systems by examining the cost, schedule and performance of particular applications.
“In total, business IT is about $6.5 billion annually,” she said. “That’s the scope of the enterprise I pay attention to every day.”
Generally, McGrath’s days are filled with determining how IT systems are performing and whether policies are working, as well as checking end-to-end business processes. She also tracks DOD’s broader performance and said much of what her office does is try to enable change to happen.
“I think that change management is the most difficult thing, especially in an organization as large and complex as DOD,” she added.
McGrath is responsible for formulating DOD’s strategic management plan and said the key to an organization’s success is actively managing performance measures or targets. “Measures are only good if people use them,” she said. “There’s a need to know where you’re going to know whether or not you’ve arrived there.”
An executive order signed by President George W. Bush in November 2007 created the PIO position. McGrath is one of 24 PIOs in the federal government.
However, McGrath and others said she is unique among the pack because she has a seat at DOD’s leadership table. “Because of where I sit in the department already, I feel empowered and accountable,” she said, referring to her deputy post.
That is not the case with all PIOs, many of whom expressed frustration at the lack of top-level support for building a strong performance culture in a Partnership for Public Service survey released in April.
However, the Bush administration official who wrote the executive order creating the position said the discrepancies among PIOs is not surprising.
“I think we were intentionally agnostic at what level this position was” within an agency’s management structure, said Robert Shea, former associate director for administration and government performance at the Office of Management and Budget and now a principal at Grant Thornton. “We envisioned a pretty diverse set of people.”
But Shea said PIOs will likely gain a higher profile because the position was recently codified by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010, which became law earlier this year.
“The new law, similar in many ways to the presidential order, directs this small but select group of federal executives to ensure that the mission and long-term goals of their agencies are achieved through strategic and performance planning, measurement, analysis, regular assessment of processes and the use of performance information to improve results,” the Partnership for Public Service’s survey states.
Although increased visibility might help people understand what PIOs are trying to accomplish, the GPRA Modernization Act doesn’t necessarily translate to more authority, said John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.
“I think the [PIO] role will be more of a champion and advocate, more conveners than commanders,” Kamensky said. “Skilled people will find this to be a very powerful role, but it’s not bureaucratic authority.… It’s powerful in terms of getting things done.”
It’s also important that agency leaders — as DOD has done with McGrath’s role — recognize the value of goals, measures, data and evaluation so that a PIO can do his or her job well, experts said.
Chief privacy officers: Setting an anchor in a sea of change
Joy Pritts said she sometimes feels as though she is working at a start-up company. As chief privacy officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT at the Health and Human Services Department, Pritts’ projects and goals are constantly evolving, and much of what she does is groundbreaking.
For instance, HHS is developing the Nationwide Health Information Network, a set of standards and policies for exchanging health information securely via the Internet. Pritts, who became CPO in 2010, is responsible for ensuring that there are adequate privacy protections in place to encourage that development.
“There are a lot of very large privacy and security issues that have to be resolved,” Pritts said. “This is the first time there are a lot of countries working in this area.… Nobody has done the whole picture.”
Pritts’ CPO position was created by the Health IT for Economic and Clinical Health Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The law promotes the adoption and meaningful use of health IT, including electronic health records.
Pritts’ primary functions are policy-oriented, and she has extremely limited rulemaking ability. She provides advice on outward-facing policy for health care plans and providers, and she works with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to ensure that privacy and security policies are built into all programmatic efforts.
Her office also reviews the privacy components of proposed rules, final rules and guidance from HHS.
A former research associate professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, Pritts said her biggest challenge now is “keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in all of HHS’ programs, as well as at other agencies.”
However, what Pritts does on a daily basis does not mirror the duties of other government CPOs. Privacy officials in the government have different responsibilities and ranks. But those variances are to be expected, said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, a think tank that focuses on privacy and data protection practices.
The nature of the CPO position “does vary by agency and department based on the information collected and the mission of the department or agency,” Ponemon said. “But in general, that role is moving up and becoming a more executive-level job.”
For example, Mary Ellen Callahan, CPO at the Homeland Security Department, reports directly to the DHS secretary. That level of seniority provides a great deal of visibility and support within the management structure, Callahan said.
Her job is to guarantee that privacy protections are instituted throughout the life cycle of the department’s programs and systems. She does that by working with DHS’ 10 component privacy officers.
If her job had a catchphrase, Callahan said it would be this: “Technology sustains and does not erode privacy protections.”
Because her reach is departmentwide, Callahan said it can be difficult to know what’s happening on the ground and how to “translate policy that’s operationally effective for DHS as well as privacy protective.”
“The speed and scope of data use is so much greater even than it was two years ago,” said Nuala O’Connor Kelly, CPO and senior counsel for information governance and privacy at General Electric and former CPO at DHS. The CPO role is, “without question, growing and changing,” she added.
A provision in a 2004 spending bill required agencies to appoint CPOs, but vague details and inadequate follow-through have resulted in limited action. Therefore, the proliferation of privacy officials in the federal government is a relatively recent development, O’Connor Kelly said.
Ten years from now, she said she expects the duties of a CPO to be more about information or risk management, and CPOs will be expected to take into account ethical standards of behavior and human rights.
“Privacy is a very visceral term,” she said, adding that the word “privacy” can mean different things to different people. “For me, it’s about responsible information use and governance.”