Public service draws innovators to federal IT

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The desire to serve the public and help people solve difficult problems is what attracts professionals to today’s federal IT workforce, according to a group of senior government technology leaders in an exclusive series of video interviews with FedScoop. 

Richard McKinney, the chief information officer at the Transportation Department, got his start in government in Tennessee, where he was the information technology director for the state legislature.

“I was being asked to come in and fix something that was terribly broken,” McKinney said in a FedMentors interview. “I had some friends saying, ‘Richard, it’s not going to pay what the private sector’s going to pay and you’re walking into trouble and this could be the hill you die on.’”

However, the advice of his peers wasn’t enough to deter McKinney, who listened to a mentor who encouraged him that “there’s more opportunity in a difficult situation” and different kinds of rewards in public service.

“I rolled the dice – took a chance, went and did that, had a ball, enjoyed that so much,” McKinney said. 

After the state legislature, McKinney faced another “difficult situation” as the CIO for the city of Nashville and then moved on to work with Microsoft, before arriving in the federal IT space with the Transportation Department. 

“I’ve been back in the CIO role for a year now, and I’ve got to tell you – it feels like home to me,” McKinney said.

The son of a military service member, McKinney learned the value of public service from his father and that work in the public sector was his way of giving back. 

“There is that sense that you get that you have done something noble,” McKinney said. “If you work in government long enough, you’ll see the fruits of your labor in the community that you live in, that you drive through, that you travel through. It’s very satisfying.”

Jonathan Cantor, the deputy chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said he learned quickly that many government employees have a “tremendous” need to help people.

“There’s an overwhelming desire of the folks who are serving in government agencies to help people,” Cantor said. “I never met a single one who was not seriously and honestly interested in helping people deal with problems.”

And while it’s important for agency employees to take pride in their hard work, they must also be unafraid of failure. 

Maureen Ohlhausen, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, said people have to seek credit for the work they perform. 

“You have to do a good job, but to get recognition, you also have to get out among people, you have to take credit for your ideas,” Ohlhausen said. “That’s part of people getting to know what you’re thinking and your abilities.”

Mika Cross, a presidential management council fellow at the Office of Personnel Management, said she learned by taking risks and making mistakes.

One of her former bosses said during a meeting that if an employee who has been with the agency for more than a year has not taken a risk and made a mistake, then the employee was doing something wrong.

“I really took that to heart,” Cross said. “It started shaping innovation all around the agency, and so, with him being so public about that, it really helped shape how my philosophy was going to be as I moved forward throughout my career.”

Serving as the chief technology officer of Customs and Border Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, Wolf Tombe said if an agency doesn’t fail sometimes, it isn’t pushing hard enough when it comes to innovation. 

“Expect some of these ideas to fail,” Tombe said. “There’s no shame in that. In fact, I would argue if we don’t fail once in a while, we’re not being aggressive enough in terms of our innovation, in fact, we’re being too cautious.”

Tune into FedScoopTV every Monday to catch a new FedMentor interview.

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Agencies, Archives, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Transportation, Departments, FedMentors, Government IT News, Innovation, Jonathan Cantor, Maureen Ohlhausen, Mika Cross, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Richard McKinney, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Wolf Tombe
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