Richard Spires, the recently retired Department of Homeland Security chief information officer, addressed the crowd as if it was all in on the joke.
“I left on some interesting terms, right?” he said to wistful laughter.
Several hundred government and industry people from the information technology community had gathered at the National Press Club to honor Spires for 3.5 years with DHS, his leadership as vice chair of the federal CIO Council and previous work as the Internal Revenue Service’s CIO — eight years of public service. The event was put on by AFFIRM and AFCEA Bethesda. Spires officially left DHS May 17, but had previously been placed on paid leave by the organization for two months, fueling rampant speculation.
Spires only alluded to the incident, but his vague comments did acknowledge friction between him and others within DHS and the administration.
“People can professionally disagree and there were some disagreements,” he said to the crowd, now quiet. “Given those disagreements, I got to a point in early May where I decided it was time for me to depart.”
Several have speculated the disagreement stemmed from the amount of authority the CIO should have over departmentwide IT budgets. Spires was pushing for more control. He was set to testify before Congress on further aligning DHS’ disparate IT programs, but was placed on leave March 15, four days before the appearance.
DHS has maintained his pending testimony had nothing to do with his administrative leave.
“I’m not going to go into any details,” Spires said, “because I don’t think that would be appropriate, needed or helpful.”
The rest of the evening was ebullient and reverential in comparison with Spires’ one somber note.
“I felt like I was getting married tonight trying to say ‘hi’ to everybody,” Spires said.
Many of Spires’ CIO colleagues, executive assistants and private sector friends paraded to the dais to praise Spires’ tenacity, generosity and clear vision as a leader, mentor and friend.
“So do you remember those first couple meetings with Richard?” said Rear Adm. Robert Day, the Coast Guard’s director of Cyber Command, as he was drowned out by laughter.
Day wasn’t the only to rib Spires for his meeting style: get everyone together, lay out a linear plan (“Focused convictions,” said Justice Department CIO Luke McCormack); solicit input (“Richard listened … for a moment,” McCormack said); but then convince everyone his way was best (“You get behind it and you move,” McCormack added).
“We’re a better team now because of it,” Day said. “We’re collegial. Richard, the one thing you did is brought us together.”
When Spires took the stand to end the night, he brought an unusual prop — notes.
“I try to give my speeches and talks without paper … but I knew I was going to be frankly so emotional that I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
Spires thanked his colleagues, allowed that he would leave the public sector door open (“I’m not that old”) and reflected on his time in government.
“It doesn’t always work in government, but when it does, it’s magical,” he said. “I didn’t get it all right. I know I didn’t. But I tried every day.”