October 17, 2019

RPC Interview: Federal CIO Suzette Kent


  • The federal CIO is responsible for coordinating government-wide information technology modernization efforts.
  • The federal government is taking a multi-pronged approach to filling critical IT and cybersecurity jobs, including retention incentives and professional development opportunities.
  • There are a number of opportunities for Congress and the administration to collaborate on modernizing federal IT.

The federal government spent $96 billion dollars on information technology in fiscal year 2018. The administration expects to spend more than 80% of its annual IT budget on operations and maintenance, including on outdated legacy IT systems. These older systems can have higher costs for taxpayers and poorer security and functionality. Americans saw the results of this with the 2014-15 data breach at the Office of Personnel Management, in which hackers stole 21.5 million records.

The Trump administration has prioritized IT modernization. It is one of three key “drivers of transformation” highlighted in the President’s Management Agenda. As federal chief information officer, Suzette Kent chairs the Federal CIO Council and coordinates federal IT modernization efforts.

Q: As the federal CIO, what are your top priorities? A year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished?

A: My primary priorities are to ensure that we are using technology to support the mission of each agency and protect and secure federal information and networks; and that these are accomplished in a manner that is a prudent use of taxpayer money. That translates to the following key actions:

  1. Leveraging the President’s Management Agenda to drive technology modernization, definition, and implementation of disciplines for leveraging data as a strategic asset, as well as creating the foundation for broader use of shared services for common processes across government.

  2. Updating outdated policies that present barriers to use of modern technology and technical best practices, as evidenced via application rationalization and progress to target, execution of the federal data strategy, and operationalizing the foundational activities for shared services. Examples include commercially available technology, emerging tech, cloud capabilities, and automated technologies.

  3. Through all of these actions, we seek to improve timeliness and quality of services delivered to mission and citizens. As measured by increased digital delivery, consistency across channels, speed to value, and transparency of process.

Q: You have valuable experience from your work in the private sector. What lessons should the federal government take from the private sector in terms of managing and acquiring IT?

A: There are multiple experiences from the private sector from which I draw regarding acquisition, management, implementation, and continuous innovation of technology solutions.

  1. Focus work efforts on targeted outcomes, not the specific details of a process or technology. This applies to development of policy, acquisition principles, and continuous improvement. Given that technology advances so rapidly, directives that are overly prescriptive impede the ability for government to leverage newer technologies and market capabilities.

  2. Vendor risk management is an area where the government has the opportunity to leverage private sector levels of discipline and examination beyond the initial acquisition, especially in situations where the vendor has responsibility for operations or some management of government data.

  3. In most private sector initiatives, workforce change – such as technical skills, operational skills, policy and procedure changes – and communication of change impact to affected audiences is part of any major transformation initiative. Those are areas that are often not properly included and are underfunded in government due to separate silos and funding processes.

Large scale transformation – processes, technology, and organizational constructs – takes more than a single year in almost any industry or business. The concept of funding tied to achievement of milestones is a private sector practice that supports responsible transformation initiatives. There is opportunity in government to be more strategic in how transformation initiatives are funded beyond a single year event.

Q: The Technology Modernization Fund was established in 2017 with the passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act. Can you explain how the fund works and what projects have been funded so far?

A: The mission of the Technology Modernization Fund is to enable agencies to reimagine and transform the way they use technology to deliver their mission and services to the American public in an effective, efficient, and secure manner. The TMF employs iterative funding, tied to delivery of

milestones, to enable more agile and dynamic IT modernization project implementation, and effective usage of taxpayer dollars. The Office of Management and Budget established the TMF Board, consisting of technology, transformation, and operations leadership from across federal agencies to oversee the usage of the TMF. To date, the board has received over 50 proposals from agencies and departments totaling over $600 million. Of the 50 proposals, the board has approved funding for seven projects at five separate agencies totaling nearly $90 million. The board ensures that each project has a strong execution strategy and demonstrable milestones. Current TMF projects include the following:

Department of Agriculture

  • Farmers.gov portal

  • Infrastructure optimization

Department of Energy

  • Enterprise cloud email

Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Unisys migration

Department of Labor

  • Visa application transformation

General Services Administration

  • Application modernization

  • NewPay

The TMF Board seeks to approve projects that address significant technical debt, security concerns, citizen service improvements, shared services expansion, and operational risks; have the greatest government-wide impact; have the potential of realizing long-term cost savings; and have the highest probability of success. Once the project is complete, the agency has a five-year window to repay the investment.

Q: Older “legacy” IT systems often have high costs, low functionality, and poor cybersecurity. What approach should agencies take to transform their legacy IT systems?

A: The President’s Management Agenda’s “IT Modernization to Increase Productivity and Security” cross-agency priority goal outlines numerous actions and milestones intended to drive progress in shifting away from legacy processes and system dependencies to modern IT delivery practices and commercial capabilities. Through agile policy development, OMB works to provide agencies better, forward looking guidance that enhances, rather than restricts, an agency’s ability to provide secure digital services to American citizens. In particular, OMB works with agencies to focus time, resources, and executive level attention on modernizing agency “high value assets,” and leveraging tools such as the application rationalization playbook provided in the new Cloud Smart strategy to increase the speed and outcomes of effective IT transformation.

Q: Big data is transforming nearly every segment of our society and economy. The federal government has access to more data than nearly every business or industry, yet historically has not done a good job of using that data. What plans do you have or what efforts are already underway to improve data utilization? What efforts are you making to ensure people’s privacy is respected?

A: New tools, technologies, and norms are creating opportunity to use data to bolster the federal government’s mission delivery, service design, and tax-dollar stewardship for the public. In order to leverage these opportunities, in March 2018, as part of the President’s Management Agenda, the administration established a cross-agency priority goal focused on leveraging data as a strategic asset to address consistency in skills, interoperability, and best practices in how agencies use and manage data by developing the first ever enterprise-wide Federal Data Strategy.

The Federal Data Strategy launched in July of 2019 provides data principles and practices intended to guide agencies in implementing a host of existing and future data initiatives. The Federal Data Strategy practices represent aspirational goals that, when fully realized, will challenge and guide agencies, practitioners, and policymakers to improve the government’s approach to data stewardship and leveraging data to create value. The 40 practices are grouped according to three broad objectives that reflect the importance of tailoring the management of data to the uses of the data, such as answering questions critical to the federal government or meeting stakeholder needs. By prioritizing the consideration of how data are to be used, agencies can derive value from otherwise unanticipated or secondary uses of data assets and more strategically execute data management improvements. Protecting individual privacy is paramount for the data strategy, and that objective is integrated and emphasized throughout the practices rather than segregated as a separate objective.

Later this fall, OMB will release a companion Federal Data Strategy Year One Action Plan. The priority of the first annual action plan is to establish the fundamental tools, processes, and capacities to leverage data as a strategic asset and align existing efforts and includes new shared resources to help agencies use data and protect individual privacy.

Q: Finding qualified people to fill critical cybersecurity and IT roles is a longstanding issue for the federal government. How do we ensure the federal government has access to the talented technology professionals it needs to modernize, maintain, and secure federal networks and critical data?

A: The federal government is taking a multi-pronged approach to filling the IT and cybersecurity workforce gap, including:

  • Hiring flexibilities that allow agencies to simplify and expedite the hiring process, resulting in faster hiring of candidates with the specific skillsets that agencies need most.

  • Retention incentives that make us more competitive for experienced talent by aligning government compensation more closely with the private sector.

  • Professional development opportunities so that our IT workforce remains on the leading edge of the newest technologies and our cybersecurity teams are prepared to defend against the most advanced efforts of our adversaries.

  • Exploring alternative pathways for service. These efforts include newer approaches like apprenticeships, competency testing versus rigid legacy role criteria, public-private partnerships for personnel exchange and increased role mobility.

OMB will continue to work with Congress to implement workforce initiatives like the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy and cybersecurity workforce rotation programs to address our critical skills gaps and strengthen the brand of the federal government as a premier employer of cybersecurity talent.

Q: What can Congress do to further the goal of federal IT modernization?

A: OMB works closely with Congress to ensure that agencies are provided sufficient funds to meet their modernization and cybersecurity goals. In particular, we appreciate Congress’ continued efforts to provide funding to the TMF, to grant agencies the necessary authorities to establish IT working capital funds, and to assist OMB in effectively overseeing the nearly $90 billion the federal government spends on IT every year. We appreciate the relationship we have with Congress and would encourage working together more closely on updating information technology laws to allow agencies to be more agile, efficient, and allow them to focus on delivering a more effective and efficient digital government to the American people.


Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent

Suzette Kent was appointed by President Trump as the federal CIO in January of 2018. Before taking this role, Mrs. Kent served as a principal at EY, partner at Accenture, consulting president at Carreker Corporation, and managing director at JPMorgan. She has been a frequent speaker in global industry forums, author of leadership editorials, and holds multiple patents in finance and banking processes.

In her role as the federal CIO, Mrs. Kent is responsible for all government-wide IT policies and spending. In addition to her daily duties, Mrs. Kent chairs the Federal CIO Council and the Technology Modernization Fund Board.

Issue Tag: Technology