Necessity is the mother of invention – and innovation. That’s never been more clear than this year, as governments worldwide are faced with one, all-encompassing requirement: To respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for strong leadership and accelerated modernization has never been so evident. When the pandemic struck in mid-March, critical government processes were forced to evolve almost overnight to meet the needs of the American people.

“We are certainly in an era and environment where everything has been accelerated. Digital transformation is now with us in real time,” noted Dan Chenok, executive director at IBM’s Center for The Business of Government.

The biggest roadblocks to rapid innovation are not legacy infrastructure and computer glitches. Often, they are cerebral – reluctance to champion desired improvements, accept risk, and put plans in motion, according to a new report from the IBM Center for The Business of Government, “Innovation and Emerging Technologies in Government.” The report, authored by Alan Shark, examines how government agencies are effectively overcoming obstacles, leading teams, and driving innovation by utilizing technology.

“Leaders at some of government’s most innovative agencies share common mindsets and a high level of emotional intelligence. They understand the motivations of their team members and align them with collective incentives and goals,” Chenok said in a recent interview.

MeriTalk’s CIO Crossroads program recorded the triumphs and lessons learned from Federal agencies as they navigate the pandemic. Because of leaders who recognized the need for innovation, including David Shive at the General Services Administration (GSA), Dorothy Aronson at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Jose Arrieta at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – agencies are stronger than they were before.

GSA Puts People First

GSA was considered a leader in modernization long before COVID-19. The agency, which became mobile-enabled more than five years ago, had already moved over 50 percent of its technology workloads off premises. These shifts helped the agency adapt easily to new telework requirements and quickly stabilize in the “new normal” – putting GSA on the front lines of pandemic relief.

Shive, chief information officer (CIO) at GSA, acknowledged that this smooth transition to telework early on helped the agency focus on key priorities – like its people and mission.

“The business mission of GSA continued unabated,” Shive said. “We’re able to not only protect our employees, but also our customers who have repeatedly said, ‘Everything we need, you’ve been able to give us.’ Their needs have changed very dramatically during the national emergency – they span acquisitions, facilities management, design, construction, and policy management of really tough technology. They’ve come to us with some interesting business objectives, and we’ve been able to do some really innovative, creative, transformative stuff to address their challenges.”

Shive knew that in order to keep innovation moving forward during the pandemic – and to meet the needs of the American people – GSA needed to first manage its own workforce so the agency could help serve the rest of the Federal government.

“I think the greatest lesson that I’ve learned – or relearned – has been that when you focus on your people, your end product is better,” he said. “That includes how you manage your own people, as well as how you respond to your partners.”

NSF Moves Forward Without Skipping a Beat

NSF is an independent Federal agency that promotes the progress of science and advances the health, prosperity, and welfare of the nation. NSF funds approximately 27 percent of the total Federal budget for basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities to help reach its overarching goals of discovery, learning, research infrastructure, and stewardship. In other words, NSF is constantly looking to innovate.

NSF relies on collaboration – whether it be with experts from around the world to review research proposals or across agency IT teams. When the pandemic hit, NSF was one of the first agencies to transition to 100 percent remote work, but this did not stop the collaboration – it went virtual.

Aronson, CIO at NSF, knew that the agency needed to draw on advanced technologies to keep the lines of communication open.

“There are many efforts going on across and between agencies at different levels. So, there’s CIO to CIO and CISO to CISO, but we have cross-agency teams at the development level that are sharing technology and data. I don’t find resistance in that. We look for places where the business is similar and we reach out to each other and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing this?’” said Aronson. “But we do sometimes have trouble sharing data that each other needs. Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain will help us minimize that barrier. But sharing best practices is common; we learn from each other all the time.”

HHS Innovates to Protect

With component agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the HHS was on the front lines of the pandemic to meet its mission of protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services.

Jose Arrieta, former CIO and chief data officer for HHS, was one of the key players who led the department’s charge in innovation. One program that came out of the pandemic was HHS Protect – a COVID-19 data gathering operation that is helping pave the nation’s way out of the crisis.

“HHS Protect is driving clinical trials in the sense that the data is identifying areas where outbreaks may occur, and that is correlated with successful clinical trials and speeding them up,” Arrieta said. “We have data on hospital bed availability and ventilator usage. We have all of the commercial and lab test data in the United States, and we have 80 to 85 percent of the private hospital lab and tribal lab data in the United States.”

In the newly virtual world, HHS Protect relies on advanced technologies to keep the system running and ensure the privacy of its users.

“We’ve used modern technology for identity access management. Every agency has their own identity access management system – and some agencies have multiple systems – so we layered on top of that,” Arrieta said. “Once we authenticate somebody and they have access to HHS Protect, we have an additional authentication step to access discrete data sets. Protecting privacy is a cornerstone of what we are doing.”

Emotional Intelligence Drives Innovation

In their agencies’ COVID-19 responses, Shive, Aronson, and Arrieta all demonstrated strong leadership mindsets. Each agency effectively and quickly innovated to meet evolving mission needs. Chenok emphasized that each of these CIOs displayed a high level of emotional intelligence, which was essential to rapid innovation.

“All of these leaders are smart. They all understand technology, and they understand that in order to implement it they will be working with people who all have different motivations and different incentives,” Chenok said. “Understanding what makes those people tick, and how to bring them together as a team to create a set of aligned incentives and goals, is important.”

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MeriTalk Staff