Tony Scott opens up about plans to lead federal IT

Federal CIO Tony Scott speaks at the Data Transparency Coalition's Financial Regulation Summit in Washington, D.C. (FedScoop)

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Up until Tuesday, the federal IT community had little idea of what newly appointed Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott had planned at the helm of e-government and federal IT.

But after his first two public speaking engagements as federal CIO in one morning, a few things became apparent about Scott: how much he loves flying planes and using aviation metaphors, and that it’s still too soon for him to propose anything too specific for improving federal IT.

However, he did elaborate to FedScoop after his speech at the Data Transparency Coalition’s Financial Regulation Summit in Washington, D.C., on how he plans to lead in this new position: “It’s kind of not only been the advice but sort of my orientation: Let’s get stuff done,” Scott said, explaining his practical point of view on IT. Scott also spoke earlier in the morning at an AFCEA Bethesda event.

“You can have all the policies in the world, and you can have all the regulations in the world,” Scott said during the open-data-focused event. “But if the data is trapped in old systems that are hard to get to that aren’t presented in the right way or made available in the right way, it’s not very useful. So I’m very big on the practicality side of things.”

Little more than six weeks into his appointment, Scott — a former CIO at The Walt Disney Co., Microsoft Corp. and VMware Inc. who took over as the official federal CIO Feb. 5 after Steven VanRoekel stepped down last fall — didn’t have specific answers to many questions from the audience about topics like independent agencies voluntarily adhering to open data policies and how acquisition affects federal IT, though he did give them his best shot.

For instance, when asked whether acquisition could improve the failure of major IT projects, he pointed to implementation as the real issue. “I’m a ‘land the plane’ guy,” Scott said in reference to his opening statement, during which he explained that teaching someone to take off is easy, but the hard part is landing. “That’s the area that I’m going to focus on: What are the things that we can do from an implementation perspective that says let’s follow the various rules and regulations that exist, and do that in a more consistent way across the government.”

“We have many examples in the federal government and in the private sector where we’ve bought perfectly good technology, had a great contract, had a great idea in terms of what we were going to do — we just didn’t land the plane,” he said. “And I think that’s where a lot of the focus has to be.”

FITARA

Scott’s immersion into federal government as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act grows legs is a stroke of good fortune, he told FedScoop. And since his appointment, it’s most of what he’s been devoting his time to, meeting with agency CIOs and CFOs, ex-government leaders, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“For me that’s just been a super introduction to the federal government and how it works, most of which I have to say I didn’t have an appreciation for before taking this role,” Scott said of the listening and engagement tour he’s been on “to make sure that out of the gate, we do the best job we can.”

“At the end of the day, it’s how do you deliver better IT faster and be more responsive to what our citizens need? How we implement it and ‘make it land’ is super, super important,” he said.

The new CIO also briefly addressed the boom of government chief data officers, which FITARA lacks power over. He told the audience it’s something he and Federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith explore regularly.

“Megan and I have talked a lot about this sort of triumvirate [CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs] that, working together in most federal agencies, could be a very powerful mechanism,” Scott said. “It’s a collaboration across a number of different elements that’s going to get us where we need to go with this … one enables and empowers the other and vice versa.”
Collaboration is something that, in his short time in the position, Scott has been bullish about, and he said it’s a solution to some of federal IT’s biggest problems, like cybersecurity — what he called “the challenge of this decade” — and making IT investments more effective.

He doesn’t think of FITARA as a law that lays out new CIO authorities but on that rather pushes “CIO engagement and collaboration with the leadership team in those agencies. Which hasn’t happened in all cases,” Scott said. “And I can tell you from experience in private industry, if you look at projects that fail, a high percentage of the time it’s because there wasn’t the right engagement with the IT team.”

Landing the plane for the administration?

It could be argued that Scott’s metaphor of landing a plane not only fits nicely with IT implementation but also the culmination of the Obama administration’s IT efforts, which he will likely see through to the end of President Barack Obama’s last term. But he said he has a longer term view than that, even if he won’t be around.

“You could look at it that way, but the way I look at it is you have to take a little longer-term view. We’re at a crossroads” in terms of emerging technologies, Scott said. “The questions is, how do you take advantage of that? That’s going to survive this administration.”

He’s not interested in getting between the political battles, and instead of pushing policy, he’d rather work toward something that will bring actual change.

“It’s one of the things I tested before I came into the role: I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to walk into the middle of some political battle,'” Scott said. “And what I’ve seen so far is both sides of the aisle agree — [IT’s] been pretty screwed up. You’ve got to go do something useful to fix it.”
His answer to fixing IT, or at least the one he’s focused on six weeks in? It’s the people.

“We have a huge people agenda, which is to bring in the right kind of talent and get some momentum going on some of these things, get the right leadership in place, the right technical talent,” he said. “And then my hope and my experience is that becomes something that’s pretty unstoppable.”

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Agencies, Government IT News, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Tony Scott
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