The digitization megatrend presents unique challenges for federal CIOs. Users expect simple, secure, reliable, multichannel digital experiences. Agile teams must be supported with new management practices, workspace environments, and tools. Legacy systems must be reengineered to enable the rapid, iterative delivery of new business and mission capabilities. Data silos must be broken down to capitalize on advances in the application of data such as predictive analytics, data science, artificial intelligence, and bots. Above all, fundamental new ways of thinking and working must be adopted at nearly every level of the organization. In other words, wholesale culture and practice change. Despite such challenges, the digital revolution also creates an opportunity for federal CIOs to completely reinvent their business models, and assume a central role (buoyed by the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act) in transforming their agencies into digitally-powered organizations.

Given this unique opportunity for reinvention, the question becomes: How should you, as a progressive federal CIO, go about rewiring your agency for the digital age? Based on my experience co-building 18F into a 200-person digital center of excellence within the General Services Administration, conducting first-hand research of digital transformation best practices at progressive government organizations such as the UK’s Government Digital Service, and developing and executing comprehensive approaches to digital transformation in collaboration with multiple agency executives (mostly federal CIOs), I recommend subscribing to the following key principles, many of which interact and reinforce one another:

Develop, execute, and maintain a flexible strategic plan for change. Transformational success hinges on an executable, adaptable plan for change, which leaders and frontline staff must buy into. The process should generally involve:

  • Assessing your present situation, including as-is capabilities, business and mission priorities, current measures of performance, and existing cultural characteristics.
  • Crafting a clear, compelling, aspirational vision for digital transformation that articulates what needs to change and why.
  • Defining a set of core values/principles (for example, “deliver joyful customer experiences” or “the strategy is delivery”) that provides guidance to the organization on the new behaviors and mindsets needed in order to change the culture.
  • Formulating objectives (for example, “improve customer experience for transactional service X”) and defining quantifiable outcomes (for example, “95% of online tasks completed successfully”) for measuring success. Google’s Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a great framework for measuring change.
  • Defining specific actions (or tactics) to achieve the Key Results, and cascading the OKRs and actions throughout the organization; periodically assessing progress against the Key Results, and making data-influenced adjustments to the plan as deemed necessary.
  • Involving as many people as practical in the iterative planning process to create broad-based support. (Co-creation and conversation are powerful change management techniques.)

Assign a dedicated core team with an empowered leader. Digital transformation is the ultimate change-management challenge. Success requires strong leadership, cause and purpose, sustained focus, and a federated army of change agents. A dedicated core team should be established with a single, empowered leader who’s accountable for driving your agency’s digital transformation agenda. The core team should include key influencers from various business and mission functions with no more than seven members in order to maximize team cohesiveness and performance. Cross-organizational representation is key to ensuring that the transformation effort reflects the diverse perspectives of the agency, instills a greater sense of ownership among individuals and the organization as a whole, and ultimately garners more widespread support. Cross-organizational representation, however, won’t be enough to rally the entire organization behind change. The core team should avoid trying to assume centralized ownership over change and instead aim to make change everyone’s responsibility.

Secure persistent leadership support from the top. Transformation research reveals time and time again that engaged leadership is one of the most critical success factors. Top-level leaders must continually rally the organization behind a shared vision, communicate plans and progress, create a sense of ownership among frontline employees, use community organizing techniques to bring staff onboard, model the desired mindsets and behaviors, celebrate wins, share lessons learned, and remove obstacles. Persistent leadership support starts with the CIO, but must come directly from the agency head as well.

Think holistically. Your agency is a large, complex, multifaceted enterprise. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. For example, even if you achieve the technical capability to ship code to production multiple times a day, if it still takes weeks for a change control board to approve the deployments, no value is gained. In other words, digital transformation requires advancing along multiple, self-reinforcing dimensions.

A diagram image showing various digital transformation dimensions.

Transform iteratively and incrementally. As an IT community, we know by now that big-bang approaches to anything are doomed to fail. Many of the same principles of agile software delivery apply here as well. In other words, you should view transformation as a big goal that’s implemented in a lot of small, coordinated, rapid-fire acts. This approach allows you to produce results quickly, make informed adjustments early and often based on empirical data, and increase the overall probability of success. (OKRs naturally reinforce this approach.)

Increase digital talent density. For your agency to succeed in a digital world, digital expertise must be built-up throughout the organization, from the CIO’s office itself to the various business and mission units. Such talent transformation will require attracting, developing, and retaining high-caliber digital talent. Bringing in outside talent can be facilitated through the use of hiring authorities such as the Schedule A(r) fellowship program and civic-recruiting best practices. Similar to what the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, and the U.S. Digital Service have done, you can establish a digital talent pipeline — managed out of the CIO’s office — that pumps fresh talent throughout the agency (for example, into a high-priority modernization program).

Increasing your agency’s digital talent density shouldn’t end with the internal workforce. It should extend to your supplier base as well. In this increasingly “me-too” market, it’s imperative to leverage experienced digital talent when determining whether vendors truly think and work in modern ways, and are compatible with your target culture. You can’t change your culture if you don’t start working with those who truly embody the desired culture.

Improving the supplier base isn’t the only advantage of having more in-house digital talent. It’ll also reduce your dependency on external contractors (in a healthy way). Such independence will give you the wherewithal to self-sustain your agency’s digital-transformation journey. (To paraphrase Greg Godbout, no one else but government can transform itself.) Not only that, it’ll increase your flexibility to deploy resources on-demand to work on critical priorities, as they emerge. The other advantage is that it’ll accelerate cultural change (for example, formation of new habits) through the live and continual demonstration of effective practices by expert co-workers. In fact, one of the most effective ways to do that is to pair employees who lack digital skills with those who do to work on real-world projects (high priority, low- to mid-complexity). No policy, intellectual debate, or online training course can change people’s mindsets like successfully delivering a project using modern practices can.

Unleash the superpowers of agile teams. As Mike Bracken says, “The unit of delivery is the team.” For most agencies, team-based structures are a radical departure from the traditional structures (such as functional, divisional, or hierarchical) that largely exist today. In these traditional structures, teams exist to serve management. In world-class digital delivery organizations such as Spotify, the opposite is true: Management exists to serve teams. For your agency to achieve high levels of digital maturity, it must put new management models (for example, empowered cross-functional teams), workspaces (for example, hybrid offices), and tools (for example, collaboration software) in place in order to unleash the superpowers of agile teams. By creating the right conditions, you’ll set up teams to ship valuable, adaptable, reliable digital services that users love, continuously.

When combining this principle with the one above, there’s an important implication to emphasize: Full-stack digital teams should exist not only within the CIO’s office, but also in the business and mission units. These teams should either report directly to, or be deeply embedded in, those units (for example, in the form of a detail). This breaks the traditional mold of localizing technical talent within one particular part of the organization and attempting to manage them like an efficient order-taking factory — but for good reason. When teams possess all the know-how and resources necessary to complete projects independently, several magical things happen: shared vision, domain understanding, fluid communications, creative problem solving, innovative solutions, cross-training, and steady work progress (for example, skillset redundancy helps to avoid resource capacity bottlenecks). It’s akin to team of teams management model pioneered by General Stanley McChrystal. In this model, you serve as a “Convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of [public] action,” to quote Tim O’Reilly. You provide the underlying open platforms that empower these decentralized teams to deliver amazing digital services autonomously. You build and coordinate vibrant communities of practice that enable teams to exchange knowledge and achieve professional mastery. And you facilitate transparency and communications across teams in order to give them a sense of purpose.

Make transformation visible. Stories, symbols, and data are powerful techniques for aligning organizations around transformational change. They make the abstract concept of change concrete by answering such questions as: Why do we need to change? How do we need to change? How well are we progressing with change? Posters, stickers, narratives, case studies, metrics dashboards, etc. are all effective ways of making transformation visible. The UK’s Government Digital Service practiced this principle to such incredible effect that I don’t think it’d be what it is today otherwise. (See their design principles posters, for example.)

I’ve heard a lot of arguments that federal CIOs aren’t up to the task of playing a leading role in transforming their agencies into digitally-powered organizations. Instead, what’s really needed are completely new functional roles, such as Chief Digital Officer or Chief Data Officer, to lead the way. Personally, I don’t yet subscribe to that theory of change, although many would point to examples such the UK’s Government Digital Service as outside-of-the-CIO models to follow.

I believe that federal CIOs are up to the challenge. With the right leadership and the right approach, they can reinvent themselves — and their agencies — to succeed in today’s digital age.