Congress to SBA CIO Maria Roat: You’re going to be great

Maria Roat speaks at the 2017 VMware Public Sector Innovation Summit. (FedScoop)

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Congress has little reason to put its faith in the Office of the CIO at the Small Business Administration, as it has struggled with a rough road in recent years. But lawmakers Wednesday showed optimism for the agency’s IT operations under its latest leader.

The office has been led by no fewer than eight CIOs since 2005; when current CIO Maria Roat took office in October 2016 she signed on to fill a position that had stood empty for over a year. This rate of turnover has led the Government Accountability Office and SBA inspector general to raise concerns over the extent to which SBA’s OCIO is able “to foster an environment in which information and technology are used to support and enhance business decisions and Agency operations.”

All this set the stage for Wednesday’s House Small Business Committee hearing, somewhat provocatively titled “Help or Hindrance? A Review of SBA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.”

The hearing represented an opportunity for committee members to quiz Roat on the improvements she’s made and those she is still planning to make. The upshot? Roat’s very presence in the room is an upgrade over the past few years.

Her first order of business, Roat told the committee, was to “stabilize” the office. Next, she began to look for modernization opportunities. “It is necessary to pivot OCIO from a reactive, fire-fighting, technical support operation to a more proactive services organization that is innovative and responsive to the business and technology needs of SBA’s mission,” Roat said in her testimony.

To that end, Roat has focused on improving the architecture of SBA’s network infrastructure, moving data to the cloud, updating the administration’s website, training employees on basic information security and more.

Roat described herself as a “forward-leaning” type of government CIO, one who likes testing new things at a small scale. Her motto, she said, is “turn it on. Let’s try it.”

Another big focus of Roat’s ten months in office has been recruiting and retaining IT talent. Prompted by questions from committee Chairman Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and others, Roat admitted that this is not easy.

“People don’t come work for the federal government for the federal government,” she said. “They come for the mission.”

She said her office is “turning over rocks” to find these mission-driven individuals.

Chabot summed up the overall feel of the hearing in his closing remarks. “The office you now hold has obviously struggled in recent years,” he said. But after meeting Roat and hearing about her work, “I am now encouraged.”

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Maria Roat, Small Business Administration
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