Big thinking at the SSA: Lessons in communication and respect from its departing CIO

Rob Klopp, the outgoing CIO of the Social Security Administration, says he's happy with the culture of big thinking that he is leaving behind.

heads brainstorming ideas
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Did you know that 65.1 million people received benefits from programs administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2015?  And do you know what the SSA calls those people? Customers. Can you imagine communicating with 65.1 million customers? Pretty daunting. 

One would think that the main goal of the SSA CIO would be to stay afloat, but Robert “Rob” Klopp aimed for more with his recent Design Thinking initiative. As CIO and deputy commissioner of systems at the SSA, Rob is the executive leader of 3,500 employees and 1,500 contractors and is responsible for a $1.5 billion IT budget. In this politically appointed role, Rob’s term ends when the current administration's term concludes in January 2017. As the country prepares to transition, Rob shared with me some interesting highlights from his time with the SSA. Spoiler alert: Good communication is key.

Gaining consensus from a cast of thousands

When Rob started with the SSA, he inherited an organization of thousands, all used to doing things a certain way.  Rob clearly communicated his end goals (cutting costs and redesigning the way they connect with customers) but he knew that gaining true consensus from a group that large is “either really, really difficult or impossible.” So he relied on education to communicate why the direction he had set out was a better one than the current state and then established an open forum, in which he says he was “completely respectful of the contrary opinions and took time to address any objections or concerns.” Rob also noted that “admitting that you may have made a mistake and making adjustments on the fly gives you credibility and gains you respect as a leader.”

Bureaucracy can be collaborative; the real challenge is constrained thinking

Rob told me that, contrary to popular belief, the bureaucracy of the government is actually quite collaborative. The main challenge is shaking off the perceived constraints when brainstorming. In the Customer Connect initiative, Rob says he challenged his teams to think about “what computer systems might look like five years from now if we were to completely rewrite everything from scratch and build something that was very modern.” There were two guiding principles. The first was not to use the limitations of current technology as an argument against an idea. The second was that existing policies couldn’t be used as counter-arguments. Rob’s directive was to “stop thinking about it as employees that use these systems and ask what is the most meaningful connection that customers can make with [the SSA], not the other way around.” It took three or four meetings with repeated reminders to truly think big before it really sunk in. The result? “They came up with amazing things, I mean amazing things,” he says.

Framework first

Since they were going to be discussing some big, diverse topics, it was important to be mindful that everyone had different areas of expertise. Coming from a very technical background, Rob had no trouble communicating with the teams at the data centers, but when it came to areas where his expertise was not as strong, like legal, he says he “found highly respected people in the organization with those skills, got their buy-in, and then asked them to go engage directly with the staff.” He also made sure to establish an intellectual framework in which shared definitions and terminologies were made clear to all departments, regardless of subject area expertise.

Teaching leadership

Once the teams realized that the sky was the limit when it came to brainstorming, they began to feel more like the leaders they all could be. Rob shared with me his philosophy: “We focus too much on collaboration and consensus and not enough on leadership. If we can find a better balance between consensus and being willing to have broader conversations, we'd end up with a better result.”

A new era

As Rob prepares to leave the SSA to make way for a new administration, he realizes that things may change, yet again. But he is happy with the framework and culture of big thinking that he is leaving behind. There are lessons we can all take from his work at the SSA. The most important may be that communication and respect go a long way toward opening minds and connecting with colleagues.

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