Modernizing government is about more than the latest technology — it means bringing industry innovations to the public sector.
As the US Federal Chief Information Officer — and the first woman to serve in this role — Suzette Kent sets policy for how federal agencies use technology and provides oversight for how well they do it. She sat down with us to talk about the power of data, the value of relationships, and what it takes to drive big, bold changes in government.
At EY, you led efforts to help banks transform and industrialize their client offerings and drove managed services operations for our Financial Services Organization (FSO). How did that experience lead to your role as the Federal CIO?
Previously, the federal CIO role was deeply technical. But this administration has set forth an IT modernization agenda that involves large-scale transformation, and that’s why I’m here. We have to ensure that our technology policies are up-to-date and that agencies can take advantage of the opportunities available to industry. So, they were looking for someone who had significant experience with industry change in the private sector and with a set of governmental interactions. I draw on my consulting background every day because my job is focused on listening to what the federal agencies want to do and then updating policies, bringing in commercial best practices as well as embedding those things that are uniquely governmental.
What appealed to you about this opportunity?
I loved what I was doing at EY, but this was an opportunity to use my skills to serve our country. For the first time, we’ll have a national data strategy for the United States, and that’s exciting. This administration understands that data underpins industries of the future. I absolutely, passionately believe that the things that we are doing around technology investment, data, automated technologies and reskilling the federal workforce are important for all Americans. This is purpose-driven work.
What kinds of exciting changes are happening?
Every day we are updating systems and business processes — some of which haven’t been updated in 20 years — to provide citizens with what they have come to expect from the commercial sector in the way of service, access, privacy protection and more.
We’re also accelerating to keep pace with industry innovations. For example, farmers who use cloud-based crop planning shouldn’t have to present paper maps to the US Department of Agriculture, as they’ve done for decades. And it’s now possible to 3D-print things like helicopter blades, vehicle parts and even medical supplies, which means eventually we’ll rely less on traditional costly supply chains. And data is now being leveraged to stage first responders more precisely in advance of natural disasters, which is saving lives.
Advanced technologies and data analytics will drive what our future jobs and industries are going to look like, and we can start building those capabilities in secondary education and beyond.
The commercial sector also has created expectations of transparency and corporate responsibility. So we’re now putting all available information on real-time dashboards. And when we put out the budget this year, the justifications will be in machine-readable form for the first time.
Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced in this role.
Sometimes the technology work itself is the easiest thing we’re doing. Change has been embraced broadly, but as we move away from paper-based processes and outdated systems, we affect people and how they do their jobs. It was very prudent for the administration to include change management as one of the important skill sets, because a big part of this work is on the front end, looking at the people impacts and bringing rigor to how we effectuate transformation. I treat it the same way we would a big transformation project at EY: start by thinking about who is going to be impacted and why they care.
How is government work different from the commercial sector?
Among other things, the motivation is different. In financial services, we ask, “What’s the business case? What’s the ROI?” But in government, we’re asking, “Have we served this community better? Are we running this process more efficiently and making fewer mistakes?” So your metric of success is different, but the process by which you deliver that success should have the same level of rigor and leverage the best available tools. Our success is measured in what citizens think and in mission outcomes, whether we’re talking food inspection, mine safety or National Science Foundation research. It’s been exciting to sit with all these agencies and figure out how we serve each of their missions.
Beyond technology, what changes do you think are needed in how government operates?
Whether I’m inside government or out, I am going to continue to push to change the alignment of taxpayer money to projects and activities. The balance of power between Congress and the executive branch is the right concept, but the budgeting process is antiquated. We are not nimble enough, and there are not clear incentives to do things faster or under budget. The concept of one-year money makes it hard for us to make big, bold changes like driving shared services adoption or replatforming an entire agency. So we need to make that process more nimble, and we need a better way to tie funding to performance.
Despite the differences, how did EY prepare you for this role?
My relationships and interactions with agencies feel very similar to client relationships. EY has the right focus: being purpose-driven, doing what’s going to make things better for the future, and putting people first. I treat the agencies like clients, seeking clarity of objectives by asking, “What’s getting in your way, what do you want to solve and how do we get there?”
Who are some of the EY people who have made a difference for you?
Eric Livingston and I started our careers together, and at different points we’ve been colleagues and competitors, but we’ve maintained our relationship through all of it. I also met Clayton Baker very early in my career, and I continue to value his perspective and leadership. It was very exciting to work with Amy Brachio and Cindy Doe to build out managed services in India and the Philippines, as well as the teams who made that happen: people who embrace changing the industry and doing things better for clients. And of course, Anthony Caterino, Peter Davis, John Weisel, Jim Karwel and Mark Weinberger were great sounding boards for this opportunity.
When you can find the time, what do you do for fun?
While we’re here, my family and I are doing every single DC thing we can: tours of embassies, all the historical tours, the museums, everything. And I’ve had a lot of EY visitors, which has been fantastic.
What does it mean to you to be an EY alumna?
It means being part of a network of great people who have broad perspectives, both nationally and globally. I’m now serving the American people, which is a very diverse population, so having that diversity of thought and perspective is more important here than in anything I’ve ever done in my career. Being able to tap into a network of alumni who now are all over the world, at all kinds of different companies, helps me ensure that I’m thinking about things broadly.
I also appreciate being able to reach out to EY, to see how they continually transform their own workforce and do some of the things that we need to replicate here.
I am privileged to have this opportunity because of long-term relationships, many of which were built on solving tough problems. It’s important to keep those genuine connections regardless of where you are.