Out of Danger: Leading System and Culture Change at the FCC

Part of a Series

This Insight is a part of the 2016 Federal Leadership Summit Report.

To see the complete report, click here.

When David Bray became the CIO of the FCC in 2013, the IT division was at a crossroads. The group employed more than 200 legacy IT systems, forcing it to devote over 85 percent of its budget to operations and maintenance. Making matters worse, the FCC had had nine CIOs in the previous eight years alone. And as a result of this instability and inefficiency, the organizational culture in the IT division had become moribund. Bray therefore implemented a multi-year reform strategy that empowered his staff to serve as change agents; provided for the incremental elimination of legacy systems; and employed selected risk-taking to replace the older systems with more innovative setups. Now, the agency spends less than half of its IT budget on operations and maintenance, the IT division is seen as a highly regarded partner within the FCC, and the IT team has developed a culture that no longer sees change as a threat but instead embraces innovation as an opportunity.

Bray’s work with the FCC’s IT division illustrates how a leader can imbue his leadership philosophy in a highly political context, build enthusiasm for and pace reform, and engage in selective risk-taking across the four stages of the framework for harmonizing strategy and culture:

  • Visioning: Initially, Bray blended his leadership philosophy with staff and stakeholder input to develop a vision for change that prioritized increased agility, resiliency, and efficiency.
  • Launching: Bray launched that vision by leveraging “change agents” to get quick wins, most notably the rapid and cost-effective transformation of the consumer help desk.
  • Scaling: The FCC CIO then scaled his reform vision by drawing on the team’s growing sense of empowerment to pursue more far-reaching change, such as moving the FCC servers to an off-site location.
  • Renewing: Finally, Bray has begun to renew this vision by continuing to develop and draw insights from his deputies and communicate about and pursue additional changes, including improvements to the FCC website.
“Management is when you do what’s expected of you. Leadership is when you step outside of expectations.”
David Bray
Federal Communications Commission

In 2013, shortly after becoming the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Dr. David Bray spoke to his staff about the virtues of danger. More specifically, he pointed out that the words “expertise” and “experiment” share the same root: “out of danger.” The implication was that if the FCC was going to modernize and become more data-driven, it needed to take chances. “Experiments by their nature are dangerous – they’re risky, not every experiment will work,” Bray later explained. “Yet in a rapidly changing world, that’s the only way for us to adapt and learn.”

The strategy was born out of necessity: when Bray arrived, the FCC had approximately 207 legacy IT systems, the equivalent of roughly one system for every eight staff members. The presence of so many aging systems, along with the fact that the FCC housed its servers in its expensive Washington, D.C. offices, contributed to a distressing fact: the FCC spent more than 85 percent of its IT budget on operations and maintenance. What’s more, many staff felt that reform was neither advisable nor viable. The average full-time employee had been at the agency for more than 15 ½ years, and the average contractor for 18 years; many staff had grown attached to the setup and systems Bray wanted to replace. The agency had also gone through nine CIOs in the previous eight years; there was little reason to think, some believed, that Bray and his plans would have a more positive fate.

Three years later, Bray has not only survived but also dramatically transformed the FCC’s IT systems and culture. His accomplishments include moving the agency’s servers off-site; bringing in talent from Silicon Valley to revamp the FCC’s 15-year-old consumer help desk; and transitioning to Office 365, a cloud-based system that removed security loopholes and replaced a legacy system (one of the 100-plus legacy systems that Bray and his team have eliminated). The FCC now spends less than half its IT budget on operations and maintenance with plans to recognize even greater agility and resiliency in new systems going forward. Buoying this reform is the staff’s resurgent enthusiasm for change, a transformation that has occurred thanks to Bray’s creation of ‘change agents’ (staff who champion change) and ‘intrapreneurs’ (staff empowered to identify and form teams to solve problems). Simply put, Bray has brought the FCC IT system into the 21st century, and he has brought his staff with him.

But change has not come easily, nor is it necessarily guaranteed to continue. Rather, Bray has had to work diligently to answer core questions. How would he create a vision for a new operating model at the FCC? How would he craft and cultivate support for his implementation strategy? How would he pace change to ensure that it was digestible for staff and ambitious enough to create efficiencies and leverage economies of scope? Finally, how would the FCC sustain the plan in a politically and technologically evolving environment?

Background

An independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress, the FCC has a range of regulatory, legal, and strategic responsibilities connected to national and global communications. At one level, it oversees interstate and international communications involving radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. It also serves as “the United States’ primary authority for communications law, regulation, and technical innovation.” Finally, the FCC employs a range of techniques—including protecting the country’s communications infrastructure and spurring innovation—to help the U.S. economy adapt to changes in the communications field. The agency is led by five commissioners, all of whom are Presidential appointees and one of whom serves as the agency’s chairman; together they oversee 18 offices and bureaus and approximately 1,750 staff-members. The IT team—which consists of approximately 35 full-time employees and 200 contractors, all of whom Bray oversees—is housed within the Office of the Managing Director.

Bray brought to the FCC a passion for public service, significant IT expertise, and a well-developed philosophy about how to lead a government agency in the 21st-century. Bray had begun his public service career at the age of 15 when he started working part time as a network engineer for the Department of Energy. He then honed his IT knowledge at Emory University, from which he obtained a PhD in Information Systems in 2008. Bray then returned to public service, deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 to advise the U.S. military on humanitarian issues and working on IT challenges in the intelligence community, before becoming the FCC’s CIO in 2013.

By then, Bray had realized that the rapidity of technological change had created a turbulent environment for government organizations and that it was therefore imperative for leaders to make their agencies more agile. “This [technological disruption] will challenge everything we know about how we organize, how we work together, [and] how we collaborate. It will disrupt just about everything,” Bray explained. “That’s why we have to step outside of expectations.”

Developing A Vision for Change – August 2013 – January 2014:

Bray also believed that “the best leaders admit they have blind spots” and draw on a diversity of views to understand the challenges the organization is facing and develop a strategy. Thus, Bray devoted his first six months at the FCC to learning from other stakeholders. This included a listening tour in which he sought out members of the other FCC bureaus to ask for feedback. In addition, in the IT division, he put up posters where people could post anonymous feedback about the agency’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

This approach was difficult. During his listening tour, Bray heard a different narrative from each of the agency’s 18 bureaus and divergent sub-narratives within each bureau. In his office hours, staff voiced long-held gripes, some of which dated back over a decade. Finally, when Bray placed posters on the wall, some people only felt comfortable e-mailing feedback because, as the CIO learned, one of his predecessors had asked for public feedback, only to lash out at staff that voiced concerns. The FCC, as Bray said, “had to do some healing.”

These challenges notwithstanding, the process was enormously educational. Bray identified staff that were enthusiastic about reform and therefore might help to lead the change effort. More importantly, he was able to synthesize diverse feedback and develop a vision for change that focused on three priorities. The first objective was agility, which involved improving the FCC’s ability to execute its mission. The second was resiliency, which meant enhancing IT scalability and stability and protecting the FCC as much as possible from external threats. Finally, the agency prioritized efficiency (i.e., reducing the cost of the IT portfolio), an important objective because, as Bray said, the agency could not continue to spend more than 85 percent of its IT budget on operations and maintenance and keep up with the changing world.

More broadly, Bray hoped that reform would contribute to a cultural shift in which IT staff embraced change, collaboration, and an optimistic mindset. Bray explained:

What I really want[ed] to suggest is a culture in which your job description is the bare minimum of what you should do. Then you should do more above it. That's a big change, especially in public service where a lot of people say if it's not in my job description then I'm not going to do it. I believe we should do the exact opposite. That's what you have to do, that's the expectation setting, but I want you all to be leaders.

“What I really want[ed] to suggest is a culture in which your job description is the bare minimum of what you should do. Then you should do more above it. That’s a big change, especially in public service where a lot of people say if it’s not in my job description then I’m not going to do it. I believe we should do the exact opposite"
David Bray
Federal Communications Commission

Launching A Vision for Change – February 2014 – December 2014

Although Bray was enthusiastic about empowering his staff, he also knew that he would have to make sure that they felt comfortable and were excited about actively participating in the change process. This was in part because the IT division’s previous culture had discouraged open dialogue. It also stemmed from the fact that many IT personnel initially seemed pessimistic about the viability of his vision. Bray recalled:

When I first arrived, about every four or five months, I would ask people how we are doing. The first time I did it about 15 percent were excited. Another 45 or 50 percent were on the edge and…were honest enough to say, ‘We don’t know if you’re going to be here in a year or not.’ The remaining group wanted to go backwards to the way things were in the late 1990s.

Bray therefore made a point of encouraging staff to participate in the change process. He started holding semi-weekly “boardwalk” meetings where the IT division gathered in the center of the office, and staff announced their priorities. Bray describes these boardwalk meetings as:

20-minute meetings where all members of the IT team are invited and we stand as we go through a quick list of the projects rated the highest IT priorities for the enterprise. We intentionally keep them to just 20 minutes. At the end, team members then circulate thank-you gifts to recognize above-and-beyond performers from the previous week. For example: a jacket from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency robotics competition that folks can sign. We also have a Thank-o-saurus Rex that a team member can receive for the week. It’s these little things, the shared rituals that we do as a community, that bring the team together.

These short, stand-up team meetings created accountability (people said what they were going to accomplish and when), facilitated rapid troubleshooting (staff could ask for help and connect), and served as a venue to celebrate successes. More broadly, Bray emphasized to team members who were willing to step outside of expectations and lead a reform that he would support and protect them. “When you mobilize your team,” Bray explained, “you need to tell them that you’re going to be their flak jacket for them.”

This approach paid dividends when a technician Bray had recruited from Silicon Valley proposed a plan to re-launch the FCC’s aging Consumer Help Desk. External contractors had recommended doing this on-site, but the change agent felt that they could undertake the effort off-premise at 1/6 the price and faster than the contractors had projected. The staff-member warned that other FCC personnel might object because they were accustomed to the traditional format; however, they could mitigate that resistance to change by presenting the information the same way it used to look, even though it would be stored differently. He also warned that other team members, accustomed to having the data on site, might object to it being moved off-site. Bray told the change agent to build the prototype rapidly and that he would speak to staff that expressed frustration. The project succeeded on time and on budget, providing an early win that contributed to a sense that impactful change was possible.

Scaling the Vision – January 2015 – September 2015

While Bray was pleased with this progress, he knew that the agency would have to undertake more ambitious efforts to realize his vision. Thus, in early 2015, he and his staff began working on a set of more far-reaching changes. This included initiating an effort to re-launch the FCC website; moving the FCC’s Office 365 software to the cloud; and, most ambitiously, Operation Server Lift, which would transfer the FCC’s servers to a data center located hundreds of miles away.

The server transfer was risky in part because the FCC would have to take some services off-line, load equipment and data into trucks, and then reassemble it at the remote commercial service provider. “It’s always interesting,” Bray later mused, “when you turn off everything at the FCC, and it literally goes dark.” In addition, Bray was spending his political capital with senior FCC leadership, whom Bray had briefed on the initiative and with whom he had weighed the risks before they decided to move forward with the plan. At some point, as Bray’s Senior Strategic Advisor Tony Summerlin summarized: “You just have to go for it.”

Nonetheless, as the date for the move (which was scheduled for Labor Day weekend) approached, Bray’s team exuded determination and enthusiasm, often staying late to make sure they were ready. And they stayed calm during the move when a map for reconnecting a server proved inaccurate. Rather than panic, the team—which encompassed contractors and full-time staff, two groups that had often existed in conflict in the past—worked together to reconnect the server. “They weren’t fighting amongst each other,” Bray later marveled, “they just got it done.”

The move was a major victory for Bray and his team, which through completing Operation Server Lift and other reforms, had achieved its goals: they had made the FCC more agile (the consumer help desk was a hit), more resilient (the move to Office 365 reduced security loopholes), and more efficient (the portion of the budget spent on operations and maintenance had dropped below 50 percent). What’s more, when Bray again asked his team how they felt about the reform process, more than 80 percent expressed enthusiasm. Bray’s team had surged past the “tipping point.”

Sustaining and Renewing – October 2015 – Present

Bray and his team have continued pursuing, communicating about, and planning for change. They recently completed a Beta (i.e., test version) for the re-launch of the FCC website, a subject Bray blogged about on FCC.Gov. That type of communication is emblematic of how Bray—who has an active, widely followed Twitter account—has attempted to communicate extensively with the public about his priorities. While Bray does not have any plans to leave in the short-term, he does recognize that succession planning is an important part of any C-suite executive role. Bray has been encouraging his deputies to step-up to new leadership roles and learn what style of encouragement and motivation works best for them to continue the reform effort.

Thus, Bray has not just transformed the FCC; he has also positioned it, internally and externally, to succeed moving forward in an extremely uncertain world. Nonetheless, when asked to identify the most significant part of the effort, he is quick to highlight the impact of the people around him. “It’s the team story,” Bray said. “I find it a huge honor to be inspired and working alongside change agents.”

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