Lira: IT modernization needs new 'organizational structure'

One of the White House's special innovation officers is looking to change culture, not just modernize tech.

Shutterstock image: cooperation, pieces to the puzzle.

The recent gatherings of tech company executives and agency leaders convened by the White House are all about creating a lasting culture of continual tech modernization, according to one of the administration's top tech specialists.

The process of modernizing government, said Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives in the' Office of American Innovation, "is close to my heart."

In the last few months, Lira said at a June 27 Nextgov conference on boosting government efficiency, the White House has called together federal CIOs, chief financial officers and chief operating officers to build consensus on the issue. The White House also convened a day-long meeting of tech company titans. All of those meetings, said Lira, a former adviser to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are key to building a new culture of change in the federal government.

"By putting people in the same room we're hoping to build relationships and build trust, so that in an ongoing way that may outlive the administration, [we can] have a culture of collaboration around this issue," he said.

Tech company executives at the June 19 White House meeting primarily about how to improve the federal government's operational side, according to Lira.

"We spent most of the day talking about issues like how do we hire better?" he said. "How do we contract better? How do we procure better? How do we deliver better?"

Lira didn't name any specific suggestions or ideas for federal agencies that sprang from the meeting, but told FCW to watch for announcements in the coming weeks.

In his remarks at the event, Lira said that modernization of government IT must be a broad effort. "The challenge is to build an organizational structure that is continually updating to get at that technological change on an ongoing basis," he said

Lira said the recent move by the Department of Veterans Affairs to drop its homegrown electronic health record system Vista in favor of a commercial solution used by the Department of Defense was emblematic of how other federal agencies should assess their modernization efforts.

It wasn't, he said, that VA was trying to fail in its long-running efforts to upgrade. It was a long-standing problem with its processes.

"When we look at the Veterans Affairs community there are continual horror stories and we've heard them for a long time," he said.

Interviews with the civil servants, vendors and other involved at the agency turns up some "bad apples," but also "a lot of really good people" doing the best they can to solve the problem, Lira said. "It isn't as though this is a malicious conspiracy to provide bad service. It's that there are instructional incentives that aren't aligning properly, so people are incentivizing the wrong behaviors. The structure itself is dictating the results that we're seeing."

"I like to compare it to taking over a retail store in the late 70's," he said. "Every couple of years you fire the manager because the store's not performing well. At a certain point, you realize it's not just the manager that's the problem. It's the operating manual for the store itself."

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