The 'no' teams try saying 'yes, if'

Shutterstock image (by Bacho): businessman pressing

(Image: Bacho / Shutterstock)

It’s a feud with which agencies are all too familiar: security vs. procurement vs. legal vs. technologist dreamers, with the first three telling the last group some version of “no.”

Erasing those battle lines was the focus of a panel discussion last week at the U.S. Digital Services’ DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit.

“We all complain about working across the IT or the legal or all the other areas, but we never actually make progress out of it,” said Janet Stevens, CIO at the USDA’s food and safety inspection arm. “We really like to complain about each other.”

The consensus: Speak early and often to different departments.

“I’m ‘he who is to be avoided until the very end,’” but that’s not the way it should be, said Gabriel Soll, a procurement law attorney with the Energy Department.

“The success stories are when my group is brought in earlier,” Soll said. “That’s when we can be the most effective, we can engage or at least suggest ways to engage with the tech side trying to accomplish something really cool early on in ways that may even open up possibilities and not be, not limit you the innovators to one particular set of technologies that you’ve been introduced to by a salesperson.”

He shared a horror story that had happened when legal wasn’t brought in until the end of a project.

“Everything was ready to go,” Soll recalled. “It had been beta tested on the president’s phone, and the president was excited by the project – except that the platform that was used to build the project was obtained on somebody’s personal credit card without consideration of any terms and conditions that they theoretically signed the government up to.”

The card hadn’t even been charged, Soll noted.

The project kept usage under the free-service threshold, so somebody had just plugged in their personal credit card to sign up, but the legal ramifications meant Soll and his team had to work for months – and delay the project’s launch – to fix things.

“Eventually, it came out and it was fine,” Soll said. “[But] if we had been involved earlier and the communication lines were open … we could have done it right the first time.”

“When things go wrong, that is our biggest learning opportunity,” noted Maria Hishikawa, IT project manager at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

She said past failures illustrate the need for cross-department discussions that take place in real terms.

IT specialists are not just about getting the latest tech “toy” or “buzzword” – cloud, mobile – but that’s often the impression Hishikawa said she feels other departments get.

Her solution is to frame the discussion in real-world terms so that everyone involved can understand not just what the technology is, but how it will benefit customers and stakeholders.

Kimberly Hennings, oversight and compliance director with the USDA, recalled how the success of working with Salesforce took communication – she had to bring in security experts to break down the reasons that, for instance, “you couldn’t have a [public key infrastructure] server in Singapore.” (Because security concerns demand that such servers be located in U.S. and staffed by vetted Americans.)

Honestly sharing fears and concerns, she added, is a great way for different departments with different goals to get on the same page.

“My biggest concerns are, who has our data, what are they doing with it and, omigosh, I know that they’re going to come for this vulnerability or that vulnerability and it’s going to be catastrophic,” she said.

Brian Dunbar, manager of NASA’s web communications, proposed a shift in thinking for those involved in the legal, security and procurement sides of things: Rather than being the “team of ‘no,’” try saying, “Yes, if.”

“Yes, you can do that if you can operate within these other requirements,” he explained.

Dunbar also repeated the point everyone else was making: “When things went right, we talked to each other early.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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