Can Phaedra Chrousos move the needle at GSA?

Phaedra Chrousos 

Phaedra Chrousos, GSA's chief customer officer and associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

As the first-ever chief customer officer at the General Services Administration, Phaedra Chrousos is infusing some entrepreneurial know-how into an agency in the process of reinvention.

The CCO position is not just new to the GSA. It's new to federal government, which has rarely been accused of being a bastion of customer service.

Chrousos joined GSA from the private sector in June 2014. She'd already co-founded two New York City-based start-ups when the GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini was introduced to her through the Partnership for Public Service.

"It was about choosing a hypothesis we both had that a dedicated, empowered team around the customer could actually move the needle at GSA when it came to the way that customers think of the agency," Chrousos told FCW in an early-August interview.

Greg Godbout worked with Chrousos on customer service projects for about a year during his time as executive director and co-founder of GSA's 18F. "She's an experienced business owner and an experienced entrepreneur, said Godbout, who's now the Environmental Protection Agency's CTO. "Government needs more entrepreneurs, people that can think outside the box."

Other agencies are taking note, including the Department of Veterans Affairs. Chrousos is advising Chief Veteran Experience Officer Tom Allin on the structure of his customer team as he tackles revamping the VA's web portal.

'No stone unturned'

Chrousos took on a second job in January, when she was named associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. In that job, she now oversees 18F, but Godbout recalled an earlier interaction when Chrousos was strictly a customer, and her customer service team needed software for an important project.

"She left no stone unturned," he said. "That's the type of tenacity you need to figure out ways to get things done. ... 18F is that way. It was fun for me to watch her doing that in another office in a different capacity, but totally related to driving better services for the American people."

The GSA is the government's landlord with 9,000 buildings around the country, so the bulk of the agency's customers are other federal agencies. One of the first things the new CCO did was to survey more than 1 million of the GSA's tenants.

"It was the first time we had actually surveyed every single tenant of ours," Chrousos said. The agency followed up with focus groups and came up with action plans for building measures the GSA plans to take on this year.

'The right person at the right time'

The GSA's other main customer base, of course, is contracting officers.

To better understand that audience, Chrousos' 230-person team of developers, design thinkers and tech innovators sifted through data, deployed surveys, and conducted more than 200 interviews to shape customer journey maps. Through the Voice of the Customer program, the team collected the data and put it into the hands of decision makers.

When it comes to improving the customer experience, Chrousos said, she's found that one of the biggest challenges is often lack of information, not agency culture.

"Everyone was really excited about the customer," she said. "They were in the government because they were altruistic. They were in the government to do great things, but they just didn't have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to get the job done."

When Tangherlini recruited Chrousos, he was in the midst of trying to reform the agency after a 2012 scandal involving lavish conference spending. He told FCW that Chrousos was "the right person at the right time" to help rejuvenate the agency and bring a fresh perspective.

"The cool thing about taking on someone like Phaedra into this work, she was going to ask substantial questions and existential questions," Tangherlini said. "She was going to bring some of this current thinking to government."

Chrousos honed that thinking by building digital businesses in the private sector. She co-founded and served as the chief operating officer for Daily Secret -- a digital media company that focuses on city-specific email newsletters -- where she oversaw the launch of 37 editions in 21 countries. Before that she had co-founded HealthLeap, an online service to help physicians with appointment booking, and earlier still worked for the Boston Consulting Group.

Chrousos, who studied economics and sociology at Georgetown and holds graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and Columbia, said she was drawn to government because it fueled her sense of mission. But it has proved to be rewarding in other ways as well.

"I've actually found it to be really fun as well," she said. "It's hard and difficult and important, but it's also a lot of fun. My colleagues are very smart. They're all here to do great things and to make a difference and it's a wonderful environment to be in."

'Naiveté about the government helps'

As the head of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies and 18F, Chrousos is also leading a program in the midst of tremendous growth.

The 18F digital innovation hub was launched in March 2014 with five people and has now grown to about 110. By 2017, Chrousos said, they are projected to grow to 300.

"We feel like the appetite for our work is tremendous," said Chrousos, pointing out 18F's intake pipeline is 100 projects deep.

To keep pace, 18F has been developing a blanket purchase agreement for agile development services. That contracting vehicle aims to connect agencies with vendors able to provide iterative software development, user-centered design and DevOps. "That was our way to scale," explained Chrousos. "We realized we couldn't grow fast enough, so the only thing we could do was partner up with the private sector to work together on the new project."

Coupled with 18F's rapid growth is the new face of government working there. 18F has earned the reputation of recruiting mostly youthful, tech-savvy Silicon Valley types more likely to be at home in an RV in Google's parking lot than working for a bureaucratic federal agency.

"I think people think of us as a bunch of kids," said Chrousos, who is in her mid-thirties. "It's kind of a misconception that they're all young and new to government."

She noted out that some of 18F's key early staff came over from other agencies, and that most are "senior engineers, senior designers."

The majority of the staff hails from outside government, however, and Chrousos said they bring in a fresh perspective. "When you first come in, naiveté about the government helps because you believe you can change anything."

18F is able to bring in those new perspectives significantly faster than most other government agencies thanks to special hiring authority, but the catch is that there's a limit on how long they can stay -- usually two to four years. Yet Chrousos predicted that built-in churn would also pay dividends.

She likes to point to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as an example. That Department of Defense agency, created in 1958 to drive the development of emerging technologies for the military, limits key staff to five-year terms and "turned out to be one of the most innovative places in government."

Godbout went even further, saying the only way to effect change is to pair workers from outside government with innovators who are already in the agencies.

"There's always going to be friction," he said. "There's no way to avoid that. Let's bring in these methodologies and these new people, but how do we pair them with the innovators that are already here who actually already have some really good ideas and have tried things. And that's how you scale quickly."

Chrousos, Godbout added, "has been doing that same sort of playbook."

What's next?

Chrousos, for her part, played down the friction factor. "There's no bad blood between the old guard and the new guard," she said. "I think it's less black and white [than] people think it is." And ultimately, she noted, "good work speaks for itself."

In the short term, Chrousos hopes 18F's good work can meet agency needs, create ripple effects, and "make agencies more agile and more open and more cognizant of the end user." Looking further down the road, however, her goals are more transformative.

"In the very long term ... I hope that 18F is no longer needed in government and that every agency has a digital service team," she said. "At the end of the day, 18F is a platform to bring in smart people in areas where the government has a dearth of that talent. If in 20 years the government needs something it doesn't have, I'm hoping 18F is that platform."


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