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Speech on Smart Cities & Counties II: Beyond the Hype, Where Innovation Rules by Denise Roth

It's great to be around fellow local and regional government leaders. I say "fellow" because, although I'm now GSA Administrator, I was once City Manager of Greensboro, NC and served under DC Mayor Tony Williams. So my experiences and lessons in local and regional government greatly inform my work as Administrator. Indeed, as I prepared for our conversation today, it felt as if my professional life had come full circle. I know how important GSA is to local and regional economic development, and I’m committed to maximizing the positive impact of our presence in cities and towns across the country.

From my time working at the municipal level, I understand the strategies cities and regions deploy to grow their economic bases, and I understand how the presence of the federal government in communities can be a force multiplier in this effort.

I know many of you are working to identify and leverage federally related regional economic development opportunities, and well you should, given the resources the federal government can and wants to bring to bear to contribute to local and regional economic development.

Where does the General Services Administration fit into this process? My vision for GSA has three components.

  • Expanding our efforts as a proactive federal partner in support of other federal agencies.
  • Raising the high degree of operational excellence for which we are already known.
  • Enhancing our role as an economic catalyst across the country.

It is this last component that I’d like to emphasize here, focusing especially on our role as a leader in the federal technology innovation space.

This may come as a surprise to you, since GSA is generally thought of as the federal government’s landlord or property manager and the agency that sets travel per diem rates. And we are indeed proud of our role managing one of the world’s largest real estate portfolios. But our role on the IT front is equally vital and of particular relevance here today.

GSA plays a key role driving federal government technology efforts, serving as the one-stop-shop that federal agencies depend on to develop and deploy state-of-the-art tools, allowing them to focus on their core missions in service to the American people, which, after all, is the reason we choose to work in government.

Through proactive partnerships with our clients, we seek to make smart investments in technology solutions to improve government RIGHT NOW, while reducing costs in the long run. We have always done well in this regard, but the status quo is never sufficient; there is always more to do, and ways to do it better.

In the federal government space, GSA is widely thought of as a technology innovation center. What may not be as well known, is that this is due not only to the cutting edge IT products and services we develop "shiny new pennies" if you will. But also to the less glamorous yet equally crucial way in which we manage our technology operations.

As with any large organization, the way things are done often become an entrenched end in themselves, rather than means to achieving greater ends. Procedures, operating structures and outlooks tend to stay as they have always been, and become outdated, less relevant.

Recognizing this, GSA leadership recently conducted a top-to-bottom review and restructuring of IT operations. This has meant an emphasis on reducing redundancy and streamlining operations through the centralization of technology management. 

To this end, we have recently restructured the agency in order to improve the services and products we develop and how we deliver them to our clients.

For example, well before Congress mandated the streamlining of government IT operations, we had already consolidated technology functions across GSA.

We went from having 11 CIOs throughout the agency to centralizing technology functions in a single CIO office. GSA's executive-level review board monitors the progress and the risks of our major investments. This has allowed us to give strategic and tactical guidance to our technology programs, including course corrections for existing programs, not only decreasing costs by around 20 percent, but also providing much more transparency into data.

But we can and must do better, for example, bringing business lines and technology closer together by consolidating GSA-wide data management activities.

Our commitment to a data-to-decisions approach represents an internal culture shift to bring GSA datasets together within a common cloud-based framework, ensuring consistency of reporting and empowering employees at all levels to make decisions based on objective facts.

Throughout FY2016, migration of the critical datasets and development of executive-level dashboards will empower my senior leadership team to make more richly informed strategic decisions derived from fresh, accurate data. This will also drive transparency of decision-making and enable line managers to orient on the same data inputs as the leadership team.

In a nutshell, we are constantly refining the process and thinking of more effective ways to centralize technology efforts, and offering our proven approaches as models for other agencies.

Supported and guided by this updated, flexible organizational structure, GSA has become much more adept at designing and deploying industry-leading technology products and services across government with the quality and speed common in the private sector.

GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technology - known as OCSIT - continues to be the nation’s go-to resource for data, information and services offered by the federal government to its citizens.

OCSIT has also negotiated numerous government-wide terms of service agreements with companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp to streamline agencies’ ability to communicate with the public and receive feedback. Now, each federal agency has instant, pre-negotiated access to such social media tools, without being hamstrung by the onerous, expensive process of haggling with each company on a case-by-case basis. These blanket terms of service cut costs by leveraging the federal government’s economies of scale, and increase efficiency by adhering to the “do once, use many times” philosophy that is at the core of OCSIT’s mission.

OCSIT’s ability to so efficiently develop and deploy relevant technological innovation is driven in partnership by a new organization within GSA that has fundamentally changed the way government builds and buys technology services. Built in the spirit of America's leading tech startups, 18F is a team of top-notch designers, developers, and product specialists committed to enabling agencies to rapidly deploy digital tools, services, and expertise that are easy to operate, cost efficient, and reusable.

On the state and local front, just this month, 18F launched an initiative to expand its consulting and acquisition services to assist federal agencies that provide grants to state and local programs. This effort grew out of a successful 2015 pilot project between 18F, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the California Department of Social Services to upgrade the state’s legacy Child Welfare System whose legacy database architecture allowed some of society’s most vulnerable members - abused and neglected children - to become potentially lost in the system.

In the space of a month,18F wrote a request for proposals for a state-of-the-art database with a projected result of reducing the cost of the system from $400 million to $250 million. And, this very week we will launch an 18F-created automated Small Business Forecast Tool, focusing on acquisition planning, to make vendors in communities across the country aware of opportunities early in the acquisition process. The tool increases awareness of potential prime contracting and subcontracting opportunities, and vendors can filter the tool to find upcoming potential opportunities based on their industry or service. This effort is part of GSA's ongoing effort to strengthen our role as a catalyst for economic development in communities across the country.

By making it easier for small enterprises to find opportunities to earn business from the federal government, we are helping to support one of the most important segments of our economy. Through such smarter practices, 18F has helped federal agencies realize savings of up to 50 percent.

In partnership with the White House’s United States Digital Service, we are leading the effort to scale the 18F model across government, helping government agencies staff their own equally smart, nimble digital services teams, funding for which the president has included in his budget request to Congress. In light of this track record of innovative expertise and creativity, it was logical that President Obama entrusted GSA with major responsibilities under his recently announced Cybersecurity National Action Plan.

As part of his Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, we have been tasked to deploy and manage a new $3.1 billion Information Technology Modernization Fund (ITMF). The goal of the fund is to retire the Government’s antiquated IT systems and transition to more secure and efficient ones. ITMF would also provide funding to streamline technology governance and secure federal networks.

We think this fund will provide the government with the ability to reduce costs on the two thirds of IT spending dedicated to maintaining outdated legacy systems and infrastructure, and, it will allow us to focus on new opportunities to creatively address the $12 billion in federal technology needs that have long gone unmet.

By enabling innovation across GSA’s business lines, we are improving the federal technology space in a variety of ways. We are centralizing the way we manage technology assets.developing strategic technology solutions to empower other agencies, and increasing specialized, technical experience throughout government.

Are we being as agile and efficient as we can? This is a never-ending, iterative process, but we have come a long way and have achieved much.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that it is not enough to just introduce agility, cutting-edge technology and private sector best practices into government operations. We must ensure that the drive to innovate and constantly progress in the area of government technology endures and grows stronger over time. It may sound odd, but we need to institutionalize innovation so that, as administrations come and go, the successes we achieve are woven into the fabric of government operations and policy.

My greatest hope as administrator is to ensure that GSA will continue serving the federal government and the American people in smart, constantly improving, and economical ways. Key to this process, and integral to my vision for the future of our agency is ensuring that all of the efforts I have mentioned today make life and work better and more efficient.

Better and more efficient for government, to be sure,but that is only a means to an end. Because ultimately, government exists to serve the people. If we are to maximize our efforts on their behalf, we must do so in the closest partnership possible with local, municipal and regional leaders. Making sure that the federal government is not merely a presence in cities and towns across the country, but rather serves as a proactive, involved partner in the day-to-day lives of all of our communities.

I am eager to continue working with people such as yourselves to help realize this vision, and develop ever more effective and efficient information technology strategies and services on behalf of the American people.