David McClure: Know when to shift gears

The outgoing leader of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies discusses the value of moving from government to industry and back.

Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

David McClure spent 18 years at the Government Accountability Office, moved into private-sector research and consulting, and then returned to government in 2009. He will retire from the General Services Administration at the end of May.

This is your second departure from government service. Why did you leave the first time and what prompted you to come back?

There are tell tale signs that it's time to do something different. When I was in government before, I was there for 18 years. I was asking myself, "Is this the only experience, from a work experience, that I want my entire career, or are there other things out there that I feel like I can do?" I think that's why I bowed out of government the first time.

I came back because the government was offering a unique opportunity, a period of innovation, openness, creativity. I'm oriented that way and always have been, so when in came an administration stressing that agenda item, it gets you excited.

So it was more about specific opportunities or moments than some master career plan?

Yes, I'll probably go against all career books, but I've never had a specific plan. I'm a fork-in-the-road guy. If something presents itself, it's intriguing, and I feel like I can do that new thing and have fun and make a difference, then I'll do it.

I did not expect to be in government ever. I was going to be an academic and teach. I became a presidential intern, and that changed my whole outlook on public service.

I went to a not-for-profit. I would've never told anybody that I planned to work in that sector, but I'm glad I did. I never thought I would be at Gartner doing worldwide consulting and research, but that happened, and then no one would've thought that I would come back to government. And look -- here I am.

When opportunities present themselves, you have to weigh them, and if it makes sense, take it.

Do you believe your sojourn in the private sector added perspective? Do you think it helps to bring in federal leaders who have been on the other side?

I do. I think the question is "when?"

Oftentimes there's the thinking that when people are finished with government careers, they naturally go to the private sector. I don't think that's what we ought to be advocating. It ought to be an early and midcareer option, too, because until you walk in the shoes of the people who are trying to actually help you and you understand the world they live in, it's difficult to truly appreciate how to set up an effective partnership between government and its contracting partners.

Do you see people making those earlier midcareer decisions?

It's a good question. But there's not a year-specific right time.

When it makes sense is when you know that a different kind of experience could help you round out your own leadership and management capability, or you can learn something very valuable that you would not have any other possibility of doing if you stayed where you were.

I think that's what you have to come to grips with, and that means one, five or 20 years in. I don't think the timing matters. What organizations, both public and private, need to do for their managers and executives is to allow those options to exist where and when it makes sense because otherwise you've lost the moment.

Are there any government agencies that do that well?

The military definitely rotates people around quite often, and I think that helps because you're put into such diverse settings that you're not stuck with the same people, the same missions, the same everything else. You really learn valuable insights into how to manage for success.

I don't know whether there are any particular agencies that do that. There have been internship programs proposed in legislation where there would be private-sector people coming in, and government managers and execs would get leaves of absence to get experience in the private sector.

I came in as a presidential intern, and I got to rotate around. I got to rotate to the Hill, learn how the Hill operates, got to work closely with the Office of Management and Budget. I think we've got to find a way to do that.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is another great example where we're able to reach out into the private sector and pull in some of the best and brightest IT professionals because they feel like it's a unique opportunity.

They're working on high profile and very important projects, and everyone who's come through that program has said it's one of the most rewarding experiences they've ever had. Many of them changed their entire perception of government.

So there are people who know how the other side works. Why do you think there is still so much tension between the two sides?

I think it goes beyond the individuals. People, culture and organization specific issues cause the miscommunication and tension to occur. You have to address all of that.

In the government, there's a tendency to focus on protection and following rules, which dictates the relationship with industry, versus, "How do we get good results?" So cost and contracts…get in the way because rules become the behavioral boundaries for the relationship.

We can't drop those rules and requirements and procedures, but that should not be the total focus of what the relationship is all about. It ought to be about getting successful results and high impact solutions in place and measuring success.

So cross-pollination is vital but not sufficient?

No, because you'll never be able to move enough people in a sufficient volume to completely change the culture and the incentives and the behavior fast enough. That certainly will help, but I think part of it is refocusing on results rather than process and procedure.

You're one of several leaders in the IT community to leave government in the past few months. Do agencies have successors in place, or should there be an emphasis on importing talent from the private sector?

Good question. First of all, yes, there are successors in government. I think oftentimes the image of the public servant is so undervalued and underestimated, but we have some of the most talented people in the workforce in government, and many of them are quite capable of stepping into leadership roles.

Of course, it's not going to be done equally well everywhere, but I'm confident that there are successors. In fact, what's amazing to me are the caliber and quality of some of the young people who are coming into the government. Some of us "silverbacks" could not compete based upon the skills and experience that they have.

Having said that, I think that whether it's public or private, you always have to be looking for new talent. You can never just bank on successes and planning in your own organization.

Everyone ought to be looking to the outside and bringing in new, fresh talent so that we create this checkerboard where leaders can move around. I think government improves from that.

Is this your last government job, or can you see a time where you would come back for round three?

Well, as I said, forks in the road always appear.

I'm smart enough now never to say that I would not do something. If I felt like I could come into government and do something that would be fun, impactful and get good results for citizens, I'd be happy to do that.

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