Former Federal CIO
Joining Cindi today is Suzette Kent, the former US Federal Chief Information Officer. Suzette joined the Federal Government in 2018 from the financial services industry with two key goals: drive IT modernization and overcome the challenges in federal IT budgeting and funding alignment.
On this episode, Suzette and Cindi discuss the creative friction between the public and private sector, the pros and cons of how the public and private sectors operate and what they can gain by collaborating with one another, the challenges of avoiding minutiae and focusing on the big picture when working with massive datasets, the origin story of the federal data strategy and how Suzette hopes it can be used to solve the problems we face today and in the uncertain future, how to get students to pursue a career in data with an outcome-based approach, and much more.
On what compelled Suzette to make the transition from the private financial sector to the public sector:
An opportunity to ... inform government policy in the ways that we serve citizens and how we spend taxpayer dollars. ... It was an opportunity to take things that I had seen work in a global manner, companies of all different types of size and different areas of focus and industry, and apply those inside our federal government. ... [It was] about figuring out something that [hadn't] been done before.
Does Suzette feel the private tech leaders of Silicon Valley should be doing more in the service of the country and its citizens (as industry leaders returning from service in WWII stepped up to do in the post-war years)? What can the private and public sectors each gain from collaboration?
My husband's retired military. I grew up next to a military base. My father was in the military; my grandparents were in the military, and that instilled a very important sense of service. As an American, especially in the roles that I've been in with leading companies and looking at where technology is going, we have so many assets and when you can contribute, I feel like it is a duty. And I also think that the appreciation between the public and private sector is really important.
I would hear people say things like, 'Oh, the government should do this and that.' Well, let's really digest that. Let's unpack that. Here's what they can do, and here's what they can't do. That appreciation on the private sector side is very important. It's important in how we best inspire and bring solutions to the government.
On the private sector side, you move fast. There's a level of impatience with bureaucracy that I think we have to have. We have to demand faster solutions in government. We have to look at ... where the law was written in 1945 and [is] probably not really applicable now. How do we fix some of those things? I called it creative friction in talking to a lot of the leaders, but that balance of people going back and forth between government and private sector makes us all better.
On the private sector side, better products and services are offered up for government use; on the government side, ensuring that we don't ever get comfortable with the status quo.
In hindsight, the CDC acknowledged that a modernized approach to the COVID-19 pandemic would have made it more manageable. How does someone coming from the private sector get colleagues who are accustomed to the public sector's slower pace to up their game?
I don't encourage people to break the rules; I ask them what rules we need to change. Focus on the outcomes. How can we get to this particular outcome, and why aren't we getting there fast enough?
The private sector side gives you comparisons. In the private sector side, I could get this done in six months. Why can't I in government? Sometimes I can't because of a law that ensures fair competition. Okay. That's probably acceptable. ... But then another cases ... this person has to do it, and this person has to do it. [Then I have to ask] what value are they adding to the process?
One of the other things [in government] that I hope ... doesn't go away is we did pilots of certain things ... so what that allowed is ... people to test and get to know the tools we created, situations where people could actually see and evaluate a thing, not analytical thinking in abstract, but a real experience and learning through those pilots and then taking the lessons from the pilots helped us then take the next step in doing something bigger, something, maybe agency-wide, something with a bigger impact.
You can't drive change only from a technology side; you have to have those partners on board. And that's the other thing that sometimes these pilots or early steps help us do is ensure that we have real things we can talk about. We can drive outcomes.
In the effort to hit certain outcomes, do we over-index on being perfect with the smallest details, or do we change the mindset to focus on the big picture?: "When we are considering new technology and new uses of data, many times we don't know every single thing when we start -- and that is why we need some very practical applications. The very first thing in the federal data strategy year one action plan was clarity around the questions that you want to answer.
When we collect data inside the federal government, that's governed by law and it's governed by policy. ... That means privacy [and] ethical use. When we collect and use that... data [we have to be] very clear about what we're going to do with it and what we expect the outcome to be.
We have to be relentlessly focused on what we're trying to accomplish to ensure both the quality of the data and the quality of the outcome, ensure that we're acting within the bounds of that contract or bound to that agreement that we have with citizens.
The federal government has amazing data -- hundreds of thousands of datasets -- and if you're not laser-focused, you can get lost.
On compiling the federal data strategy and what Suzette hopes CDOs in the public and private sectors can gain from it:
We [stood] on the shoulders of many individuals who had done work before in this space, but it wasn't coalesced into a uniting document that we could get all agencies on board with. Everyone wanted to do everything and they wanted to do different things and agencies have different missions. And so the mechanism wasn't fully there to recognize how do we go down a path, but a path that is measurable and clear, but still takes into account the fact that agencies have different missions [and] different conceptual contracts around use of data. For example, some agencies have a mission to make data available. Others do not. In many cases, we didn't have agency leadership who made business decisions based on ... [applying] specific data [to answering] specific questions.
The goal was [to] set a North star, and that's the strategy and the tenets of the strategy. And those are fantastic things that probably any public or private sector company could read and say, 'Yeah, I understand.'
Then we broke it down into 40 practices. What does it mean? What do you do on a daily basis in your business, whether you are the data scientist or the technology individual who's managing those data sets, or you're the business person that is looking at the information presented to you to make decisions? What do you do?
And then that last piece is a yearly action plan. It was kind of done from the perspective of where do we start and how do we get some of the foundational things in place? And then we will build up, year over year, and enhance and kind of grow and think of it as like concentric circles, kind of going out as agencies build not only business operational perspective, but they bring in the talent.
I have to commend the men and women working on the federal data strategy. They came from agencies all over the federal government, and we augment that with team members from academia; we did a very significant public engagement. We had a lot of transparency with the Hill -- progress and outcomes achieved were posted online, so everybody knew at the same time what was accomplished.
It is my hope -- and I know from talking to the team members who are there -- they're continuing the charge. We have seen some great outcomes delivered. Although there were a lot of challenges during COVID, we were actually able to take some of those practices and protocols that we were piloting and put [them] in place and actually use some of [them]. Now, should we have done it earlier? Would it have been better? Absolutely. But we should use this as an example of why we need to never lose focus, why we need to keep bringing on and focusing people in this phase, and why we need to move faster and ensure that being data-driven and treating our data as an asset to drive policy, answer questions, and provide evidence for how well things are going should always be a priority.
On cultivating a culture in which people place greater trust in the use of data:
Probably every one of your listeners has had this experience when someone does something that is data-driven and you produce the summary and ... the very first thing someone says is, 'I don't know where you got that. I need to see the data.' They distrust it.
You have to start with trusting the data. So as we elevate the CDOs, as we put discipline into the data practice, we are building the trust and we build the trust with the mission [of] serving people. ... How we change the culture is investing in the data and focusing on, again ... prioritizing the question: what am I trying to answer? When there's a belief in the quality of the data, the understanding you're using it for a focused purpose, there's more belief in the outcome."
Suzette's outcome-driven approach to getting students interested in pursuing a career in data:
If you ask someone in seventh grade, 'Do you want to be a computer programmer?' or 'Do you want to be a data scientist?' They might be [unenthused]. But if you say, 'Do you want to study human machine interaction? Do you want to ensure that our oceans are clean? Do you want to figure out how we have a resilient food supply? You want to be a game graphic designer?' They're like, 'Okay! That sounds interesting.' We have to give signals from private companies around what kind of things they want people to do to be employable. And we have to talk about the cool stuff they get to do to get them interested in all the underlying coursework and study that goes with enabling them to do that.
As one of the few women in data leadership, how does Suzette believe we can help more women and people not equally represented find their voice in the space?
When I interact with women, the very first thing I always start with is: 'Know and understand the business in which you were working.' Those authentic connections give you a really strong foundation. Just start the conversations. Always be at the table. Have a seat. Contribute to the conversation. You're in the discussion because you bring a unique perspective. And demand better behavior of everyone that you're working with. ... We should celebrate unique and diverse approaches to producing different kinds of outcomes.
Suzette Kent served from 2018 to 2020 as US Federal Chief Information Officer, spearheading a wide range of technology and workforce initiatives. Her tenure was devoted to setting governmentwide standards while also giving agencies the freedom to tailor efforts in mission-appropriate ways.
Suzette was selected from the financial services industry to replace outgoing Federal CIO Tony Scott. She was a principal with Ernst & Young and had been a managing partner at Accenture and worked in other capacities at JP Morgan and the Carreker Corp. This background allowed her to see the challenges in federal IT budgeting and funding alignment and its IT modernization.