'We need safe spaces to do things differently'

FCC CIO David Bray discusses change agents, government's existential question and the aspirations for this year's Executive Leadership Conference

David Bray
 

FCC CIO David Bray discusses change agents, government's existential question and the aspirations for this year's Executive Leadership Conference.

Federal Communications Commission CIO David Bray is the government chair for the 2016 Executive Leadership Conference — ACT-IAC's annual gathering of government and industry leaders in the federal IT community. He talked recently with FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider about the agenda and ambitions for this year's ELC. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You often talk about the importance of encouraging colleagues and team members to be change agents. How do you teach such an intangible skill, particularly in a culture that's as bureaucratic as government?

That's a very good question. In some respects, it's helping someone, dare I say, almost recognize their inner potential. They can find an opportunity to use whatever gifts and talents they have to make a positive difference.

The nice thing about it is it's actually somewhat easier to do in public service, which you wouldn't think. This is definitely a rules-driven culture, but people usually sign up to make a difference.

What about the attempts to teach by example — whether it's an individual leader or a digital service team or whatever? Can you transfer some of this culture through osmosis?

You can, and I want to be very supportive of those teams. The challenge that you run into is when you bring someone from the outside to teach by example and there's no encouragement of "seek to understand before you seek to be understood."

They can have all the best intentions in the world. I actually saw this happen a year ago where someone from a digital service team was talking about the importance of your customers wanting to be surprised and delighted by how much information you know about them that they don't know they need you to know.

That might work for Silicon Valley firms. You're filling out a form and, oh, it's nice that I don't have to fill this out. But that probably doesn't work for government agencies. I don't think a lot of citizens want to be surprised that, hey, we pulled records from other departments and know all this stuff about you.

We're headed into a transition, which means huge turnover in the leadership ranks. How do you build a culture of change that sticks after the change agent leaves?

You do have to have C-suite leaders who are willing to stay there long enough to, in some respects, work themselves out of a job.

The other thing, though, is actually preparing your successors. Succession planning is something that is talked about but not often done — making sure you have a succession plan, and making sure there are at least two people as successors because you never know, they may end going someplace else, too.

That planning and that conversation between political leadership and career executives are things I would hope come up at ELC. Clearly, political appointees are providing the political direction to the ship of state. The question is: How can we have a better two-way conversation about what are the things you want to get done? And then how can we help you take those objectives and actually execute them in a way that maintains momentum?

Make changes if necessary, but keep things moving as opposed to stopping every one or two years when different people come and go on the political space — and then you're surprised because government is not moving fast enough.

You've spoken on several occasions about that sense of urgency — that government can't change fast enough to keep up.

I think what we are now seeing is a widening gap between how fast the world is changing and what the systems were designed to do. I don't mean just technology systems but human systems and everything else. I really think this is becoming an existential question.

I don't mean to make it sound too dire, but can representative governments continue to provide the services needed for our nation to operate in the next 10 to 15 years, given exponential change? Or is something going to change so badly that people will actually look for a totally new way of organizing that may or may not involve government?

Those conversations are actually being had now. And that presents an interesting opportunity for changes.

How are you going to try to address that question at ELC?

We need to set the stage and make it clear that if we don't make some serious changes — particularly in the areas of leadership, but also in the areas of procurement, human resources and technology — you can imagine after a couple more election terms, we may risk having even a bit more dire conversation about the same things.

What we want to try to do is get industry talking about it because the reality is political appointees will listen much more to industry than they will listen to me saying the same exact thing.

Then, too, trying to get the media [to pay attention] because, again, they'll listen to you. Let's create that sense of urgency. These pain points don't necessarily go away, but what we need are safe spaces to do things differently and better.

There's an intriguing item on the ELC agenda: What are the "experienced vs. edgy leadership debates"?

We've worked very hard to diversify this year's ELC. At least 50 percent of the speakers and panelists we invited are women, more than 25 percent are Gen X and Gen Y, and more than 25 percent are from outside D.C.

Leadership can happen at any place, any time in your life, any position. The edge leaders are those who maybe aren't the ones who are necessarily always billed as executive leaders but the ones who are trying to be leaders. Those are the edgy leaders.

Ideally, there are going to be some differing opinions. We want to explore those different perspectives and actually say, "Well, why is the edgy leader seeing it this way? Why is the experienced executive leader seeing it this way? What can we take away from that?"

I think we don't create enough of those spaces. It needs to happen.

If you can create those spaces, what does success look like after the conference?

One, these conversations are carried forward by ACT-IAC in November and December in such a way that they continue to be refined and reverberate. I'm hoping that briefings to the new administration in February and March are received, and they're received well.

Then, ideally, this allows the next administration to get thorough input from industry, from the public, from the media, from career civil servants, such that it begins to be incorporated into their thinking. They can hit the ground running in the first 90 or 180 days of the next administration.

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