The Business of Government Hour

 

About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Ira L. Hobbs interview

Friday, August 20th, 2004 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"Information technology is helping produce a better, more efficient government – one that citizens can access 24 hours a day."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 08/21/2004
Guest: 
Intro text: 
Technology and E-Government...

Technology and E-Government

Complete transcript: 

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning, and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner in charge of the IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created The Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about The Center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Ira Hobbs. Ira is the Deputy Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the co-chair of the Federal CIO Council Workforce in Human Capital for IT Committee.

Good morning, Ira.

Mr. Hobbs: Good morning, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation, also from IBM, is Jim Martin.

Good morning, Jim.

Mr. Martin: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Ira, let's start by talking about the Federal CIO Council. Who’s a member of the organization and what's its mission?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, Paul, the Federal CIO Council is basically composed of chief information officers from the large cabinet departments, with representatives from a number of our smaller agencies. These generally are the people who are responsible for setting information technology policy, information management policy, and helping to drive the modernization of federal organizations. It's a very energetic and exciting group of people, most of which because of the nature of their work are all about change, and so it's a very fun group to work with, but a group that gets a lot accomplished.

It's headed by Karen Evans, who is the e-government administrator for the Office of Management and Budget and, I might add, a former chief information officer with the Department of Energy. So it's a good group, a good group of people to be affiliated with, a good group of people to work with.

Mr. Lawrence: Give us a sense of the big picture. What type of IT jobs exist in the federal government, and sort of a percentage of the total, how many people in government are doing IT work?

Mr. Hobbs: If you go strictly, you know, the dues-paying, card-carrying occupations, you're talking about roughly 70,000 people. But when you really start to think about it, who today in their job isn't doing information technology? So we look at all of our federal employees as information technology professionals, as information management workers.

In terms of occupations, you know, the federal government runs from the bottom to the very top. We're still doing data processing; we're still doing data entry. But at the same time, we are into cybertronics; we're into cyber security; we're into enterprise architecture planning; we're doing capital planning and investment. We have folks that are developing data architectures; we have folks who are doing application development, telecommunications. You name it. The federal government, because of its size and just how big it is, you're going to find represented, someplace within our organization, people who are performing every aspect of information technology work and as good a set of information technology professionals as you might expect to find in the world.

Mr. Martin: Ira, in addition to being a deputy CIO for USDA, you are the co-chair for the Federal CIO Council Workforce in Human Capital for the IT Committee. What are the objectives of this committee?

Mr. Hobbs: Jim, you know, I actually got started with that back about 1999. A very good colleague, no longer with the federal government, Anne Reed, really got me involved in that. What the Council, what the Workforce Committee is really about we're kind of that human capital aspect of the full council itself. Our job is to look both beyond they horizon and currently today and figure out what are the kinds of things that we need to be doing for our human capital for those people who are involved in information technology in terms of how we recruit them, how we retain them, how we train them, and how we make utilization of their valuable skills in the delivery of information technology from a federal government perspective. It's about people, and that's what this committee is about, understanding how our people work and how we can help them better perform the jobs that they are assigned on a day-to-day basis.

Mr. Martin: What are the things you do to support the CIO Council's mission that you just described?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, you know, it's been a long time, and I guess I have seen in my lifetime a computer that turns itself on. Most computers are turned on by people, and so all of our federal CIOs have IT workforces, okay? You know, there's always been this issue about how do we plan successionwise; always this issue about retirement is looming on the horizon. So it helps support the mission by, one, helping us to understand that a lot of problems and issues we have are in common, and if problems are in common, so can solutions. It takes us and it focuses our energy. So we're doing like and similar things across our workforce, because an IT professional in the Department of Transportation is no different than an IT professional in the Department of Agriculture. They have wants, they have desires, they have fears, they have aspirations. And what we do as a committee is we help routinize that process, bring a level of consistency so that best practices in one agency are shared with others, so that we as a federal government work to the extent practical as an enterprise in our relationship with our workers and with our people, and that's how we believe we're providing a very important tactical element to how the CIO Council operates across the government.

Mr. Martin: What are your responsibilities and duties as the co-chair of the Human Capital for IT Workforce Committee?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, most folks say that when you're in charge of something, that means you're responsible for it. I like to think just the opposite. The people who are really in charge of it are the people who work for me, and so what I do is I channel and articulate the things that they do. I'm very fortunate and very blessed to have a very active co-chair, Janet Barnes, who's the chief information officer for the Office of Personnel Management, but in addition to that, I've got about 25 federal employees who do this on a part-time basis like it's their only job, and that means they give a lot. And so what I do is I try to guide and direct, but I've got a lot of people who are filling the gaps, really providing the work, and really looking at the issues from a priority sense of what we consider to be most important as it relates to our issues around human capital.

Mr. Martin: Can you tell us a little bit about your previous experiences before becoming the deputy CIO at USDA and the Human Capital for IT Workforce?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, you know, I'm at the age and the point where I hate to start looking back, because that's such a long, long time ago. But a kind of quick thumbnail sketch, you know, I came into the government as a presidential management intern. That's how I got here. I was very fortunate to be in an agency where they allowed me to fully explore the government as an intern, and so I had an opportunity to work in a number of different areas, both financial management, human resource management, and in the area of budget and finance. And, you know, I kind of got in the information technology, believe it or not, almost as a side issue.

But I've had progressively responsible positions in both financial management, human resource management; served a time as director of operations for the Department of Agriculture; and served as its senior procurement executive before I got back into the information technology area. So I've had a very diverse career and an opportunity to work in a lot of different areas, which has given me, I think, a much keener insight about government, how it works, how you're able to pull things together to be effective. And so I think it's very important that you have diversity in your career, and so about every three to five years, I try to move on and do something a little bit different, you know, because I think it just helps me to be a better manager and therefore to be a better executive.

Mr. Lawrence: I was going to ask you, what was the experience that perhaps best prepared you for management?

Mr. Hobbs: Oh, the experience that best prepared me for management. I don't know if it was the best experience, but it was certainly one experience, and that was my work with a gentleman named Larry Slegle. He's retired from government now. Larry Slegle I think was one of the finest managers that I've ever had the occasion in government to work with, and he took me under his wing when I was a junior employee as a presidential management intern and taught me the insight that management is not so much about what you say; it really is about what you do; how people watch you, how people observe you in terms of what you say you will do, and how well that stacks up with what you actually do.

Larry taught me a lot of practical lessons about managing, and the most important one of all of those messages was that the people who work for you truly are the most important asset that you have in your managerial tool kit.

Now, we all say that, but he believed that and he demonstrated that by how he treated those employees in terms both of his authoritative role as the executive but also as a colleague and a friend and a mentor. You know, his premise to me was the best declaration of a supervisor's capability is the number of people who leave that organization and go on to bigger and better things. His premise was if you have people who leave to go on to bigger and better things, you'll never have a problem getting people to work for you because people understand and recognize success. That had a very big impact on me in my career. I try to emulate, perhaps not as well as he has but that certainly always been my goal to recognize that where I am in part has something to do with me, but it also in part has something to do with the people who I've been fortunate to have work for me.

Mr. Lawrence: That's very interesting, and perhaps it's not unrelated to I guess Jim and I should congratulate you. The National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society of Public Administration awarded you the President's Award for Outstanding Public Service. Can you tell us about this award?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, you know, Paul thank you very much. Let me say this. We all think we're good, you know, and all of our mothers think we're even better, right? But, you know, you come in, you try to do the best that you can, and you don't do that from the standpoint that you think you're going to get some recognition for it. You do it because you think it's the right thing to do. And lo and behold, if you're as fortunate as I am, other people will see that, too. And so this award I want to believe has been for, you know, those countless days and hours, Saturdays and Sundays, not, you know, Mondays through Fridays, when you're on the phone, when you're in meetings, when you're trying to pull things together, when you're trying to help people believe in what they're doing.

And so what I've tried to do is set a high standard as a public sector employee and to be able to demonstrate that to folks. So the National Academy was very kind to me in that respect, you know. They tell me that I've done some things that helped people, and if all that's true then that's good, you know, and so I was very humbled by the experience, but I was very pleased. It's the first time I've ever taken my son with me to something like that. He's a 13-year-old. And so, you know, I said to him I was fortunate. I got lucky. I said but you can be a whole lot better because you are good, and so it worked out both ways. It was a rewarding night for me but also a rewarding night for my family.

Mr. Lawrence: Congratulations again. I'm sure your son had a good time. It's a very interesting point.

Recruiting IT professionals to join the government is a big challenge. How is it done and what skills are needed?

We'll ask Ira Hobbs of the Department of Agriculture when The Business of Government Hour continues.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Ira Hobbs. Ira is the Deputy Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the co-chair of the Federal CIO Council Workforce on Human Capital for IT Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jim Martin.

Well, Ira, since recruitment is the beginning of the employment life cycle, could you describe the recruitment activities and the tools that government uses to attract IT professionals?

Mr. Hobbs: Okay, Paul. Recruitment is a huge issue for us. Obviously, you know, we're doing a number of things. First of all, there is that, you know, the traditional, old-fashioned way. That's out at the conferences, out at the colleges and universities, down-on-the-ground approach. But beyond that also, you know, we're using the modern tools technology sites, you know, our own website that's up there. There's some encouragement to individuals to get out. And folks like myself getting around the country, talking on the radio, talking with folks like yourselves, you know, about how the federal government what we think ought be viewed as an employer of choice.

We always have not had a good reputation in that sense, but that's something that we're really working hard to improve, and we're seeing you know, we're seeing a surge both for economic reasons as well as what we might want to consider as patriotic reasons. We're seeing a lot of people rethink coming to work for public service, and so we're working very closely, a lot in collaboration with state government and the local government as we go out and recruit. We're trying to make sure that people understand what we do, understand that what we do is exciting and challenging and it's not, you know, what a lot of folks have described us in the past as maintaining legacy systems, but that we're at the forefront of technology.

In the federal government, one thing that you can count on it's a place where at a very, very early stage in your career, you can get a lot of responsibility for very, very major activities. So we're trying to sell that. We're trying to sell that in the sense that what we develop in government in terms of IT is we develop people who are leaders. And that's starting to have some impact and some effect.

Mr. Lawrence: I understand the Council is doing some very interesting work with the National Academy Foundation and the Scholarship for Service Program. Could you tell us about these programs?

Mr. Hobbs: The National Scholarship Program is really it's a joint effort between the Federal CIO Council, the Office of Personnel Management, and the National Science Foundation. One of the areas that we find that we really need a lot of help in is in the area of cyber security. So working with the National Science Foundation, we've been able to set up a scholarship program.

If I could digress just a minute and, say, one of the areas that we found that there has been a lot of teaching capacity in is in this area of cyber security. A couple of years ago, you couldn't go to a school and get a degree training in training in that area. It was a subspecialty. What we've done is been able to help organize a consortium of colleges across the United States. Those colleges are starting to produce graduates. Those graduates are starting to come into the federal government. So we think that we're filling a void that's needed and necessary not only in the federal government but private sector also, and that is those folks in the area of cyber security who help defend our networks from unlawful intrusions and other kinds of nefarious actions that are going on out there. It's a wonderful program. We've seen a lot of young folks in it. But we've also seen a lot of people who are mid-career who are making transitions. So not only are we getting people who are interested; we're getting people who also bring a lot of practical experience to the whole realm of information technology.

So it's a wonderful program. Projections are that we're going to be seeing somewhere between 200 and 300 graduates, you know, annualized over the next couple of years, and we're rapidly trying to find a place for them in the federal government because we see them as very critical to the security of information technology across the board.

Mr. Martin: Ira, in another interview, you recently said that enterprise architecture, security, and project management are three specific areas that the federal government is looking to hire new talent. Can you broadly describe these three fields to our listeners. And let's just break this apart a little bit and let's talk about enterprise architecture first. What is it, and how do you help IT professionals develop this skill?

Mr. Hobbs: You know, we constantly poll our members, the Council, to see what it is where they see themselves as most needing help and support, and these three areas that you've mentioned enterprise architect, cyber security, and project management continue to bubble to the top.

When we talk about enterprise architecture, in most instances what we're talking about is how we build good, solid modernization plans for how we're going to use information technology in our organizations. You will hear the purists talk about it in terms of creating as-is models that reflect where we want to be or to-be models in the future. My basic sense is and I try to always talk about it in plain English because that's how you get people to buy into it is that what we're really talking about is understanding what you have how can you leverage what you have to your best practical advantage and then having some idea about where it is that you want to go. No different than what you and I do sometimes when we go down in the basement and that computer we got is just about on its last legs. Well, that's our as is inventory.

We've got to figure out what's next, so we’re pulling up the different catalogs and we're looking for different machines, and that's where our to be is. So it's a means of helping us to modernize that. Now, certainly, I don't want to seem like I'm over simplifying the area, because there are some folks out there who will seriously take me to task for it, but it's about creating that inventory, understanding what kinds of systems you have, understanding what the innards are of those systems and how they operate and how they work, and then planning for how you are going to move them as new technologies become available so that there's an orderly progression to what you do. Another way to look at it is understanding how you're investing your money and making sure that you are getting value for the dollars that you are spending.

Now, you take that and you move to cyber security, I need not tell either one of you about the situation in the kind of world that we exist in today. The beauty of information technology is that it connects the world, okay? The danger of it is that when we connect the world, not everybody is there for the right reasons, and so there are people who look for opportunities to do wrong things; in some instances, bad things. What we need and what we are developing and continuing to enhance is a cadre of people, who are really the cops of the internet, folks who can help us understand when bad things are being perpetrated and understand what it takes to be able to stop those things from happening. You know, I've heard somebody refer to them as the visual centurions of the future, you know, and these centurions in that sense stand guard watching this array of cables and wires and signals that are being sent and are able to determine good from bad. So in that sense, that's what we're looking for in cyber security.

Project management is probably the one that most of us are focusing the most on, and that is, from a project management standpoint, you know, we found that we spend billions of dollars on projects, and then looking at those projects we need to have a cadre of people whose background, understanding, and experiences are such that they can get us from start to end. You know, you hear the phrases, "you know, we're out of budget, we're out of sync." Well, what we're looking for is people who can help us to complete these projects on time, on schedule, and within cost. And so those are the three areas that we're really I think focusing on in the federal government in terms of what our needs are.

The other thing that I might add is this the same thing that we see a lot of our industry partners and industry colleagues focusing on also. So that gives us even more assurance that we are looking at the right issues and focusing on the right things in terms of opportunities to improve our business and our business delivery.

Mr. Martin: When you look at this, what types of project management training does the Council support?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, we support project management training in several different ways. One, we created a virtual CIO university, and what this is is a consortium of about 17 colleges that offer Master’s level programs, you know, in information technology. Embedded in them is, you know, a core of project management training programs. We have identified competencies; we've identified standards in terms of areas that we believe project managers should be conversant in. We've established those; we've put those in place. And if I'm not speaking too prematurely, very soon now we're going to come out with an approach about how we rank our project managers in terms of levels of experiences, knowledges that they bring to the table in relationship to the size and complexity of the projects that they have responsibility for.

And so we look at it then from a college perspective, but we also look at it in terms of individual specific training courses. There are some things that we offer within our agencies themselves, you know, in terms of processes and procedures that people need to understand to be effective in those environments. And of course we follow a very disciplined approach in that sense in terms of identification of classes that people can take. So it's an across-the-board approach. You know, we look at a number of different factors for general management skills to very specific IT competency areas for training.

Mr. Martin: Well, that's all very interesting. I'd like to ask, how are the training courses funded?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, training courses are funded in a number of different ways. You know, one of the age-old adages is that when budget dollars are tight, the first thing to go is travel and training. That's pretty real. But that's not just real for the government. That's real for any organization that's trying to survive and trying to keep itself out of the red and in the black in terms of its dollars.

There are a number of different things that we've done to do that. We have certainly encouraged agencies to work together. You know, you can get two agencies that come in together, partner, and bill of course. That's one way to do it. Secondly, we do get appropriated dollars. We do get money. I think good managers find a way to fund training because if you're not taking care of your people, you're not taking care of your business. If you're not taking care of your business, you probably won't be there long trying to take care of it at all. So we get dollars from the Congress. We use those dollars for training. We come together as a council. We plan things together as a council. And so we find one organization that's doing something that seems to make sense. That organization may agree to open it up to others so that we can all share in the benefits of the knowledge and of the learning.

So we use a variety of methods, just like everybody else in that regard, and, you know, we're building now more and more learning portals for the federal government. I think our biggie government initiative out there is Go Learn. You know, in Go Learn, we're amassing training, we're amassing courses, we're working with the Office of Personnel Management to identify those kinds of things that are skills sets for our employees. We're starting to apply more technology toward helping our employees identify what their skill gaps are, what are the kinds of training that closes those gaps. So the training they are taking is very much specifically related to helping them to improve their skills.

You know, we just launched a new project which we call our Roadmap Project, which is an automated tool that walks an employee through an individual development session that helps them to identify training and competencies that they need. Very exciting tool. We've very excited about it.

Mr. Lawrence: That's very interesting, especially all the training that's being offered.

Many other groups are concerned about the federal IT workforce. Who are they and how does the CIO Council work with them?

We'll ask Ira Hobbs of the Department of Agriculture about them when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Ira Hobbs. Ira is the Deputy Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the co-chair of the Federal CIO Council Workforce on Human Capital for IT Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jim Martin.

Ira, can you describe the Clinger-Cohen Act's Workforce Assessment Requirement and what the Council has done to meet this requirement?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, when Clinger and Cohen put together this act, one of the things that they wanted to do was certainly to seek to empower chief information officers. But they also put a caveat in there that makes those CIOs responsible for annually assessing their workforce, and that is making sure that they have the right kinds of people, the right kinds of skills, and if not what steps or actions they are taking to ensure that they are seeking to improve the quality of their workforce.

A couple of years ago, we hit on the notion and the idea that one of the ways that we could accomplish this for all of the federal government was through a survey process, and so one of the things that we've laid out is an annualized survey where we're now seeking import for some 65,000 federal employees to help us understand where they see themselves in their careers, what are the issues, the kinds of things that they think we ought to be grappling with, and then we're able to condense that down into a report that becomes our governmentwide assessment of where we are from a Clinger-Cohen perspective with respect to our workforce. But the way we designed the survey is such that every department we're able to tear out their information for them. So all of the treasury employees who apply, for example we can roll that information to Treasury. So Treasury, then, has a look and feel for what its workforce is saying, because not everyone is answering the same way. Some folks are good, some folks are bad, some folks are indifferent. But by being able to look at it in the context of your own department, it gives you a sense and a basis for follow-up dialog and discussion.

And so that’s been one of our premier acts. We're getting ready to start that again this year. We're hopeful that we're going to have our survey out probably about July. We're looking forward to that. We think that we're going to significantly increase and improve numbers of people that we got involved each year. The number seems to be rising. And so we’re kind of looking forward to it. Great group of people again, you know, folks who work part time in this area who are leading this initiative for us and really doing good work for us.

Mr. Lawrence: What did the last survey tell you about gaps or disconnects?

Mr. Hobbs: It's interesting that you know, we've always kind of made assumptions. For example, we talked a little earlier in the hour about enterprise architecture, security, and project management. We've always, as leaders, made the assumption that those were the critical areas. What we got back from our survey was validation from our employee.

We've always thought that, you know, when you hit 55, which is generally the retirement age in the federal government, that that's when people are going to leave. But our surveyed folks told us no, I'm probably going to work three, four, five, years longer than that.

So what it started to do was take some of the guesswork out of assumptions that we were making and then started to provide us with more of what we could rely upon as I don't want to say a factual but certainly moving more toward being factual than gut-level reactions. And so that’s the kind of information that it gave us. It told us about how much of our workforce is professionally certified, you know, in areas where people felt they should have certifications. It told us things about, you know, what were the skill sets; what's our overall educational component of our organization; how many of our people are actually college graduates, high school graduates.

We're finding a high percentage or so we're finding out we've got a very smart workforce. Now, that doesn't say a whole lot for the leaders sometimes because we're just finding that out, but it does say we have a very smart workforce and it gave us indicators of areas and things that we as a council then need to focus in. Thus, we took those results; we're applying them; we're going to go back out; we're going to resurvey; we're going to revalidate; we're going to move in the same way.

Mr. Martin: A big challenge for both public and private sectors is retaining IT professionals once they've come on board. How does the government seek to retain such talent?

Mr. Hobbs: I've always said that there's a whole lot of difference between IT and the public and the private sectors in terms of the technical skills. There are areas of the private sector where the salary is certainly far more than what we're paying on the government side. We have to understand that. There's a certain proportion of our workforce that we have to expect that we're going to lose. And we do expect that.

A couple of things, though, that we've done to try to stymie, you know, kind of like the revolving door or the one-way door. First of all a few years ago we were able to get into place a provision that gave us a better match salarywise for people coming out of schools in what would be the entry-level, junior-level parts of our organization. That's helped us somewhat. There are still fairly lucrative offers out in the private sector, but, you know, the whole notion, you know, of getting a Ferrari and $50,000 signing bonus well, you know, that's a thing of the past. That's a dot-com phenomenon that's gone and it's not there anymore. It's becoming much more consistent and routinized, and so we’re able to respond in that sense.

There are two things that we did. We have a portion of our workforce that's pretty locked, and that's folks who are under the original Civil Service Retirement Act because it requires that you've got to stay a certain amount of time. One of the changes that we made a few years ago was to create a more flexible retirement system, such that when people left the job, whatever they put in the retirement system traveled with them.

So I think the issue for us so much isn't now how do we keep retaining people, but how do we ensure that's it not a one-way door but that there's a revolving door, because I think, unlike me who came in the government and will probably spend 30 years in a government career, that we're going to see a lot of people who are going to move back and forth between government and industry. Three years here, three years there. They're going to end up having worked that 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 different jobs, which is very different from the generation that I grew up in where you generally went to work with a company and you moved there.

So our intent is to make sure that we get that revolve on the door, and so we’re doing that with things like project management, how we're opening it up, greater flexibilities in terms of looking at competencies, working toward reducing the fact that you've got to have worked in the government for a certain kind of government job, making it more focused around the function that the job performs and not so much where you performed it at so that a project manager is a project manager, a telecommunications professional is a telecommunications professional, and So we’re doing things like that, which is opening our system up more because we think there are a lot of people out there who want to come in and we want to make sure that there's a place and a way for them to be able to do so.

Mr. Martin: Given all the things you're doing and you just mentioned, what advice could you give to managers on how to retain IT talent?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, I've got a very basic philosophy in this, Jim. The first part of it is, number one, make sure you nurture the folks who are there and help the folks there to move on. You know, you can't promote everybody in your organization all the time. There's only going to be so many of them that you can promote on a regular basis. So one of the things that you want to make sure you try and do is you help identify opportunities for people who work for you who are ready for those opportunities, you know, and anything that you can do to help propel them.

And you know how it is. One manager talks to another, you know, and says this is somebody that's good, I've taken them as far as I can, they need to move on. Not the traditional way of keeping them locked up in a room and as long as they're working for me it's fine and that kind of a thing. But if you don't you know, the basic premise of closed fists, you know, catches no new money, so you've got to open it up and you've got to let them go, you know. But if you let them go, the corollary to that is you're never going to have to worry about a good intake. My basic premise, though, is the Olympics approach reward the runner while the sweat's on their brow. Make sure that when people do good things you reward them then, not later on down the road when the significance of the act and the rewards themselves there's a disconnect.

And, most importantly, you know, listen to the people you've got. They're the ones who do the work. They know it far better than you. Listen and learn and act upon what it is that you've learned. That's the advice I'd give to any manager out there, you know, that's trying to manage a workforce.

Mr. Martin: How does the CIO Council work with the other federal agencies to accomplish the goals of human capital workforce and, the corollary, does the Council work with other IT trade associations to accomplish these goals as well?

Mr. Hobbs: You know, we work with a number of your good folks. I mean, you know, we're very active with ITAA, for example, in terms of their human capital program, and I guess they represent about some 16, 17, 18 might even be higher, you know tech companies, thousands of tech companies, and so we work very closely with them in terms of comparing notes, results, things that we're finding, and we generally participate in a number of different activities throughout the year with them.

In every one of our federal departments we have an individual who serves as a human capital officer. Part of what we do as a council is we encourage each of our CIOs to work very closely with their HR counterparts within their organization, so that as we're planning for these kinds of things, we can ensure that IT is included in that plan and we can give them some of the benefit of some of what have been some positive experiences for the federal government's IT community in terms of having some successes in the human capital area. Beyond that, we interface with, you know, certainly state and local CIOs across this nation, but beyond that, this federal community is also very active internationally Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Australia, other parts of the country. Well, we are sharing the things that we are doing and the best practices that we are developing, you know, with others throughout the world.

Like I said, there's not a federal information technology and a private sector information technology. We all use computers and we all technology, and that's what makes our industry so great. You know, it doesn't matter where you're doing it at, we're all doing the same things. So we find it to our advantage to share what we have, but also to listen and to learn what we can from our private sector colleagues, as well as from the nonprofit sector of the government also.

Mr. Lawrence: That's an interesting point about the different sectors working together.

Should the chief information officer be a political appointee or a civil servant? We'll ask Ira Hobbs for his opinion when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Ira Hobbs. Ira is the Deputy Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the co-chair of the Federal CIO Council Workforce on Human Capital for IT Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jim Martin.

Mr. Martin: Ira, how have the IT positions in government evolved over the last decade, and additionally what do you think it'll look like in the future?

Mr. Hobbs: Everyone always thinks of the IT shop as the, you know, the folks with the tool kit, you know, the neat little miniature screws and screwdrivers running up and down the hallway plugging and unplugging. I think what has happened that is probably most predominant in terms of change in the information technology role has been this notion of the CIO with the IT organization having a seat at the management table.

When you look at where our economy has gone in this country, when you look at, you know, the real benefits of the life styles that we have today, when you pull the cover back what's driving that is the information technology, you know? Information technology is really fueling this kind of thing in our society in our cars, you know, you tell folks about video games like the X Box, you know, where you're online and, you know, you're playing with 300,000 people. Never happened in my neighborhood and never happened on my street when I was coming up. But it's there. So it's evolved in the federal government in the same way.

More and more, the technology side of the house is being asked by the business side of the house to deliver, you know, not just the equipment, but to deliver an end result and to be able to deliver that end result in a way that benefits the program, which in turn, benefits the citizen. So I think the biggest change that we've seen in the information technology community is this integration that is occurring of information technology into the business fiber of everything that we do, which is producing a better government, a more efficient government, and a government that citizens can access and use on their terms as opposed to what we traditionally refer to as the 9 to 4:30 kind of office environment. That's what we're doing. We're opening the government up 24 hours a day.

Mr. Lawrence: There's been much debate about whether or not the chief information officer position should be a career civil servant or a political appointed position. What are the pros and cons of the different options?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, the first thing I'd say is that the debate will probably rage on as long as there are CIOs who are political or CIOs who are career. Let me first say that I think there are pros and cons to each, you know, if I were to wager in and give you my opinion. Certainly having an institutional understanding of where you have been and where you are trying to go is very important, particularly in an organization where funding is annualized and the population that you seek to serve may be as large as the whole world. You know, I don't think any of us would want to come in and say I'm here, I'm going to make some decisions for the world, and then I'm going to go home. But at the same time, there's also a connect that is required in terms of as administrations change the direction that you want to go. Not so much that you don't still want to change the world but you may want to change it just a little bit like this. So I think there's a balance that needs to be achieved.

You know, I think my relationship with my boss is a good one. I think it's a good model, you know, but my sense is it could work either way, but you have to understand the consequences and the need and the necessity for two critical factors regardless of which row it is, and that is communication and collaboration between that CIO and the executive management about the results that you want to achieve. If you're not doing that, I don't care if you're political, I don't care if you're career it's not going to work. So I think it can work either way. I think the argument, the debate is just that. It's a good argument, it's a good debate. You know, I've seen it work both ways and I've seen it work well both ways, and so that's the opinion I’d offer on it, Paul.

Mr. Martin: We've talked a lot about what types of skills that the government is looking for in IT professionals. If someone were to be interested in making a career change from the private sector to the government, what steps should he or she take to do so?

Mr. Hobbs: Well, you know, certainly there are functional areas that are just hot right now. And by that I mean, you know, if you've got the skill set, you know, you can get three or four job offers within a span of a couple of weeks. High on that list is always for me cyber security; you know, the ability to be able to be a part of the protection mechanism of this massive array of systems that we have. So there are going to be hot areas that stand out like that.

I think you have to decide what it is that you're really interested in, what it is that you really want to do, and then look at what kind of process you have to go through to either develop, enhance, or acquire those kinds of skills. Sitting doing the self-assessment you know, be honest with yourself. You know, not all of us were cut out to be mathematicians and there's no sense in fooling yourself that all of a sudden you're going to become, you know, like one of these card-carrying, dues-paying, IEEE members. You know, that doesn't happen overnight. There's years of study.

So be realistic about what it is that you're trying to do. Then look for the appropriate vehicle. Is it a technical college versus a junior college versus a four-year college? Is it getting into some kind of an apprenticeship-type program that will allow you to develop the kinds of skills that you want to be marketable in or those other kinds of things, particularly, is it government, that you really want to work here; is there a way that you can make that happen? So I think there are many different avenues, but I think the first part of it is making a realistic assessment yourself about what it is that you really think you want to do and then how much you're willing to apply yourself to that.

Mr. Lawrence: Ira, you've had a very long and interesting career, as you described in our first segment. For our last question, I'd like for you to be reflective and offer up what advice would you give to someone interested in a career in public service.

Mr. Hobbs: Well, Paul, I'm going to start by saying, you know, I wanted to work in government since I was in the ninth grade. I knew that. When I was in the ninth grade in high school, I knew very clearly that I wanted to work in government. Didn't know what I wanted to do in government, but I knew that I wanted to work in government. So I chose what then was the traditional route, you know. Got out of high school, went to college, got a graduate degree in political science, got a master's degree in public administration and said to the government here I am, I'm ready, you know? Doesn't work that way as well today.

I think today if you're very interested in a career in government, there is a host of wonderful agencies out there, you know, from the Department of Treasury to HHS to the Department of Transportation, Labor, you name it. There's just a huge array of labors out there. Find out about those organizations. One of the good things is that everybody's online now. You can find out more about these agencies online than you ever could before, and certainly more so than you will by picking up the phone and calling them. Look at that information, find out about it. Everybody's got somebody in their family, believe it or not, just about, who works for the government. People don't want to think that, but we do.

So find out from them about their experiences, what they've done. Look for opportunities for summer programs that will allow you to come in and experience a culture within an organization before you make a commitment that that is exactly what I want to do, and even use that as a springboard. There are a number of wonderful programs that help individuals go to college that have, you know, fall and spring you know, have school and summers with the government and at the end of those programs convert them to permanent government jobs. So I'd say look for those kinds of opportunities, decide where you want to go, decide what you want to do, and then, you know, realize that in the government we're looking for good people, and we certainly will want to be looking for you if you're interested in working for us.

Mr. Lawrence: That's very interesting. Well, Ira, I'm afraid that will have to be our last question. Jim and I want to thank you for squeezing us in your busy schedule and joining us this morning.

Mr. Hobbs: I thank you. And for those of you want more information about the government, I would clearly suggest and recommend that you look for www.firstgov.gov, which is the portal for the federal government. It is your way to, in three clicks, find all of the information that you're looking for about us. And if you just want to go directly and you’re interested in information technology, do look for www.cio.gov, which is our website, our homepage, and you'll be able to find out more information about us.

Mr. Lawrence: Thank you.

Mr. Martin: Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Ira Hobbs, Deputy Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the co-chair of the Federal CIO Workforce in Human Capital for IT Committee.

Be sure and visit us on the web at businesofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and research and get a transcript of today's fascinating conversation. Once again, that's businessofgovernment.org.

This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Ira L. Hobbs interview
08/21/2004
"Information technology is helping produce a better, more efficient government – one that citizens can access 24 hours a day."

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