Phaedra Chrousos retrospects federal government digital service

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications
Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

After two years of helping lay a new foundation for how the federal government buys, builds and delivers government digital services, Technology Transformation Service Commissioner Phaedra Chrousos announced she is stepping down.

“The creation of the Technology Transformation Service would have not been possible without her vision and leadership,” wrote General Services Administration Administrator Denise Turner Roth. “She helped scale 18F from a “minimum viable product” to an organization that agencies recognize as a critical partner in delivering services to the American public.”

I asked Chrousos to share some parting thoughts.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a startup entrepreneur turned political appointee that came into government for a short tour of duty and has been asked to take on a few different roles and titles along the way – three in two years to be exact! My latest role was helping stand up the Technology Transformation Service and my latest title is that of commissioner of that service.

What is the Technology Transformation Service and why is it important?

TTS is home to an evolving arsenal of products and services that federal agencies can use in the massive undertaking that’s underway to repair, rebuild and modernize the government’s technology.

TTS v1.0 is a purposefully experimental organization that permanently houses the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, and the Office of Citizen Services, which holds products and programs like data.gov, the Web Design Standards and FedRAMP. It looks and feels like a startup that’s starting to scale – so it’s always pushing boundaries and feels creatively messy as new processes are continually put in place to support its growth.

TTS v2.0 will be a larger, more powerful, focused arsenal of products and services that are still constantly evolving to meet the needs of chief information officers across federal, state and local governments. Hopefully it will still feel like a startup in spirit, but as an ecosystem it’s reached a certain level of maturity.

Your Twitter bio, “We can’t win the future with a government of the past.” What’s government of the past?

When it comes to technology, it feels like the government of the past is absolutely everywhere.

The invisible infrastructure that supports our government and ultimately serves the American public is very fragmented, mostly clunky, often broken and sometimes insecure. As someone coming into government with no previous knowledge of how it operates behind the scenes, it was not just eye opening, but also quite alarming. Then I caught a glimpse of the $80 billion annual price tag associated with all of it – just for the federal government alone – and basically fell out of my chair.

And government of the future?

It’s pretty simple.

The government of the future is one that leverages technology to provide easy to use, secure and effective services to the American public. It’s a government that uses modern technology methodologies to not only get to better outcomes, but also dramatically decrease the cost of technology for the American taxpayer so that a good part of that $80 billion can be better spent on just about anything else.

Let’s do a retrospective. What are the wins?

The biggest wins are the people that make up TTS – they come in to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellows, part of the 18F tech bench, and product managers in the Office of Citizen Services.

Many incredible, talented technologists and innovators leave their lives behind in both the public and private sector every month to join this ecosystem. They join in large part because their patriotism that inspires them to rise to the government’s mission to serve the American public. They also join in some small part because we can offer them an environment that rewards new ideas and experimentation and feels more like a startup than the rest of government.

They are the ones that move the government forward every day.

What’s the biggest hurdle?

Believe it or not, it’s the government itself.

It’s designed in every possible way to reward risk aversion and discourage any kind of experimentation that by definition requires failing small, fast and often. Of course, that’s probably for great reason – most government organizations and services have not only reached maturity but also have a tremendous amount to lose if something goes wrong.

Unfortunately, the effort to modernize government technology is relatively nascent and needs to go through this very important experimental phase. It’s the only way we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.

And how are you addressing this?

We’ve taken a few very thoughtful steps to create a safe, experimental space for the team so that they can feel free to test out new ideas in a way that accommodates for failure.

Things like: standing up a monthly ideation and funding process (“the great pitch”) that anyone can pitch ideas to; creating a regular, transparent and inclusive review process for all our products and services; maintaining a flat organization so that those that are working closest with our government partners are not the ones farthest from the decision making; encouraging people to stand up and participate in thematic learning and working groups.

Finally, socializing the idea that failing small, fast and often is not only ok, but necessary – and doing that over and over again.

Changing the government of the past has to take its toll. Personally, how do you handle this?

There’s something about being on a two year sprint rather than a decade long marathon that has made this all not just doable but very exciting.

I liken it to being on a campaign or launching a startup – there’s a lot of work to be done, a very close camaraderie with colleagues, and if all goes to plan, there is usually a well deserved vacation waiting at the end.

I do really admire those that can go on for longer, and especially those that dedicate their lives to it. They deserve a tremendous amount of recognition and respect for moving the government forward despite extraordinary obstacles to execution.

For those who want to win the future, what can they do?

Come in for a tour of duty in the government – a year, two years, a decade – it doesn’t matter. I would love to live in a world where we ask the people we meet where they did their tour of duty in government with the same frequency that we ask where they went to college.

Connect with Chrousos on Twitter and LinkedIn.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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