In late 2013, when David Bray became the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he knew he was parachuting into a troubled situation. For one thing, the FCC had had nine CIOs in the previous eight years. “[That's] always a good sign,” Bray quipped, in a presentation at the 2015 Public Sector for the Future Summit. But as he went on to explain, the rapid turnover in executive leadership masked deeper challenges with the FCC’s Information Technology (IT) operation. In an agency with just 1,750 staff, there were 207 different IT systems—the equivalent of one IT system for every nine staff members. What’s more, over half of those IT systems were more than ten years old, resulting in the FCC spending 70 to 80 percent of its IT budget on maintenance. Finally, the FCC was employing many paper-based, human-intensive processes that could benefit from automation. As Bray explained, IT costs spent on maintaining existing systems were “escalating” across the agency with no sign of relief. For an organization that was supposed to be at the forefront of 21st century communications technology, the FCC’s IT division was lagging behind.
Remedying this situation, Bray realized, would require introducing myriad changes to how the FCC managed its IT services; it would also involve effecting broader cultural change across the agency’s 18 different bureaus and offices. In particular, Bray would try to use IT to transform the FCC into an “optimized enterprise” with the fluidity and responsiveness to maximize public value. To accomplish this, he would need to make the FCC’s workforce more “agile,” meaning that it would have the skills and wherewithal to adapt and respond to 21st century customer demands. Reshaping the organization and reforming the workforce, however, was bound to generate friction, particularly given that the FCC had resisted change for so long. Thus, Bray’s efforts to reform the organization would hinge not just on his ability to identify new technology but also his capacity to lead broader and riskier cultural change. He had to find a way to achieve buy-in without suffering the fate of his nine most recent predecessors. He would need to be both a digital diplomat and a “human flak jacket” when he intentionally stepped outside of status quo expectations.
Bray began the reform effort not by dictating the specific changes that needed to be made, but instead by highlighting a set of broader IT transformation goals with a series of principles that undergirded them. The goals included becoming more agile, which meant improving the organization’s ability to execute the FCC’s mission by being innovative and transparent; enhancing the organization’s resilience, which entailed increasing the scalability and stability of its IT system; and becoming more efficient, which required decreasing IT costs, particularly maintenance expenses. Bray likened this to replacing or repairing an aging roof: one does not wait for the roof to start leaking, but instead takes action to repair or replace it. The same maxim, he argued, should hold for the FCC’s aging legacy IT systems.
To aid the FCC’s progress toward these goals, Bray identified three principles. The first was becoming more “data-centric.” Previously the FCC had been application-centric, which resulted in the FCC’s data being stove-piped in different IT systems. A cloud-based common data platform across the organization, by contrast, would help to merge that data and in turn accelerate the development of business solutions. The second principle was “adapt first, buy second, and create third.” In the past, when the FCC had needed a new IT function, it had typically created it internally. Bray felt that adapting existing approaches, platforms, or tools would be more efficient than repeatedly reinventing the wheel. Finally, Bray advocated for a third principle of cloud-based security. With a comparatively small staff, the FCC, Bray believed, had a limited ability to protect itself against external attacks. A cloud-based approach, by contrast, would have built-in defenses.
Beyond promoting these high-level changes, Bray relied primarily on people within the FCC to recommend and choose the specific reforms and the paths to obtaining them. Specifically, he embedded within each FCC bureau or office “intrapreneurs,” each of whom would work with the bureau or office to understand the organization’s needs, confer with IT to created a shared reform plan, and then serve as a bridge between IT and each bureau as the plan was being implemented. He also advocated that employees throughout the enterprise act as “change agents” to identify areas where the FCC could improve its IT and to propose agile solutions to enact those improvements—akin to a “start-up pitch” within the organization. These “change agents” enabled Bray to function as an internal “venture capitalist” whose job was to assess and guide change. Whenever a change agent or an intrapreneur approached him with a proposed strategy, he asked for three reasons why the plan might work, three reasons why it might not succeed, and how the change agent would mitigate those risks. If the intrapreneur was able to answer all three questions, Bray was willing to “invest.”
Bray also used external social media, including creating a blog and a Twitter account (@fcc_cio) with more than 50,000 followers, to communicate with the public about why the FCC was undertaking these bold changes. This was important because the changes would not be immediate, and the FCC’s limited budget constrained how fast the IT overhaul could happen. In his external communications as FCC CIO, Bray also sought to learn from the public, and intentionally thanked and recognized FCC team members when they excelled as “change agents.”
Under Bray’s leadership, the organization has begun to implement important reforms. One was unveiling a cloud-based replacement for the FCC’s consumer help desk, the system through which the FCC responds to public complaints against communications providers in the United States. When Bray joined the organization, the help desk was 15 years old, and Congress was pressuring the FCC to replace it. Private companies recommended creating an on-site IT desk that would cost $3.4 million and take 18 to 24 months to complete. Under Bray’s leadership, the FCC created a new cloud-based system in only six months and for just $450,000; what’s more, the setup, according to external evaluators, ranks among the top five consumer systems in government and is expected to reduce the cost of operating the system by 60 percent over five years. Another key change is that by the end of 2015, the FCC—which had had many on-site servers—will have moved all of its servers off-site. This, too, will dramatically decrease the FCC’s IT operating and management costs, enabling it to get away from legacy IT spending and prioritize the development of new cloud-based solutions.
Yet the biggest change has come in the culture of the organization. When Bray joined the FCC in 2013, the average staff member had been at the agency for more than 15½ years, and the average contractor had been there for 18 years. The result was a team and system that was comfortable with the status quo and wary of change that would “break up friendships and relationships.” Now, however, after introducing a range of technical reforms, reducing the FCC’s reliance on on-site contractors, and creating change agents, the organization has become more nimble and begun to embrace change. In other words, it is on its way from the “uptake” to the “edge” in its effort to become an optimized enterprise and to develop an agile workforce.
A broader takeaway for leaders trying to enact these kinds of changes is the imperative to think about how to lead cultural change and protect oneself simultaneously. Bray created a sense of urgency within the FCC by highlighting the organization’s problems; he also established overarching goals and guiding principles for change. However, rather than enforcing a “top-down” approach to implement those changes, he advocated for “bottom-up” input and action from change agents and intrapreneurs within the organization; this was a way to deputize staff members, leverage their insights and experience, and increase their sense of inclusion in the change process. Knowing that change can be risky, Bray created a strategy that insulated him from criticism. In effect, he served as both the digital diplomat and “human flak jacket” that he said leaders must embody when they intentionally step outside of expectations. As a result, he has not just survived in his post as FCC CIO; he has changed a major government organization for the better.