WASHINGTON--Ask Steven VanRoekel what would make an "ideal" IT operation within a federal agency, and he'll tell you that it starts with the CIO calling the shots, but that it also requires a balance between centralized technology authority and empowering developers and others at the bureau level to flourish on their own.
"We've got a lot of project managers in government who can hit the short deliverable, who can do the 90-day. We don't have a lot of managers who can hit the five-years-out thing, and hit it with a level of precision that's going to be on time, on budget or under budget."
--U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel
VanRoekel, a Microsoft alumnus who currently serves as the country's second U.S. CIO, is leading a government IT apparatus at a time of seismic transformation, helping oversee the development and implementation of a barrage of White House IT directives covering everything from cloud computing to mobility, cybersecurity to open data.
And agency CIOs aren't receiving those mandates with a corresponding uptick in their budgets, though VanRoekel notes that federal IT spending, in aggregate, has held steady as duplicative or outdated programs are cut and new funding flows to emerging priorities such as cybersecurity.
[Related: U.S. CIO Pitches Service-Driven Federal IT]
A Vision for Federal IT
In a keynote address here at the FOSE government IT show, VanRoekel described a vision for agency IT where the CIO both plays a leading role and collaborates with other C-level officials, while nurturing a culture that rewards innovation and risk at the staff level.
"We have to ask ourselves, what makes an incredible IT shop?" VanRoekel said, answering his own question with a quip: "The answer of course would be a great CIO."
Members of audience, heavy with federal IT workers, chuckled in appreciation at VanRoekel's joke, which he quickly amended. "The CIO is just a part of the opportunity we have in front of us," he said.
In all seriousness, VanRoekel explains, the CIO is pivotal to maintaining the IT "headquarters," responsible for the procurement of commodity IT like PCs and email (he notes that many agencies still operate multiple, distinct email systems), and the oversight of the building blocks of the operation, such as usage policies, security and enterprise architecture.
"What headquarters needs to do is this next layer, which is a service-oriented infrastructure," VanRoekel says.
In that spirit, staff-level workers would be encouraged to bring their ideas for developing, say, a new mobile app that could deliver a clear benefit for the citizens who are viewed as the customers of the agency.
"The central IT shop should say, 'Fantastic. Here is a development environment as a service, Here's a test environment as a service. Here's a deployment environment as a service,'" VanRoekel says.
"When you develop in that way it snaps to enterprise architecture, it snaps to your cybersecurity guidelines, it snaps to your open data and your API strategies, and you can build in a level of flexibility and optionality to give the bureaus and offices the ability to deliver their mission in the best way they know possible," he adds.
But VanRoekel describes a workplace culture in the federal government that might best be described as risk-averse. He recalls that his team at Microsoft handed out a monthly risk reward to employees "who stuck their neck out and tried something," even though the majority of those awards were given in recognition of endeavors that failed.
[Related: U.S. CIO: Changing the Culture of Federal IT]
"But we wanted to incentivize risk, to tell people it's OK to take risks," VanRoekel says. "The way you manage this if you're a C-level executive or managing an organization is lower the risk surface -- make the failure not so painful that you can get out of it."
At the federal government, VanRoekel argues, agency CIOs (and, more importantly, mission objectives and citizens) would be better served by employees who approach the IT projects they design and scope with a more ambitious vision.
"We've got a lot of project managers in government who can hit the short deliverable, who can do the 90-day, let's get something done and let's focus on that from an objective standpoint," he says. "We don't have a lot of [project] managers who can hit the five-years-out thing, and hit it with a level of precision that's going to be on time, on budget or under budget."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.