Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: The government's most 'social' chief information officer

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

David A. Bray, the chief information officer of the Federal Communications Commission, is modernizing the agency’s information technology systems to better meet mission needs. He tweets as @fcc_cio and was named the most social CIO in the world for 2015 by Forbes magazine.

In an interview with Tom Fox, Bray talked about his transformation efforts and his views on leading people.

What issues should government information technology leaders be focused on?

We need leaders who do more than keep the trains running on time. CIOs and CEOs can work together to digitally transform how an enterprise operates. As the FCC’s CIO, my primary role is that of a digital diplomat who partners with the 18 different offices of the commission to best use digital technologies to achieve their missions, whether it be dealing with satellites, wireless communications, enforcement or public safety issues.

What are some of the issues you have faced at the FCC?

A. When I joined the FCC about two years ago, we had 207 different legacy IT systems. I sometimes joke that I feel like Oprah saying, “Everyone, look under your chair, you’re going home with a legacy IT system today!” So we are focused on moving away from application solutions toward data-centric, cloud-based solutions. We have moved one major system to a cloud-based commercial option that was done at one-sixth the price and in half the time of our old approach. We also are moving our physical IT servers at headquarters to a commercial service provider.

How should cybersecurity threats be addressed?

The basic communication protocol of the Internet was developed when cyber threats were rare. There is an inherent risk in using the Internet, and the only way to guarantee security would be to unplug from the Internet. Consequentially, a new attitude has to take hold to include focusing on cyber behaviors rather than just the signatures of intruders. Identifying certain aberrant behaviors can go a long way toward addressing cyber threats that either happen at blinding speed or in slow motion over a long period.

What is your approach to leadership?

I’m a strong believer in empowering a team with diverse ideas. I encourage positive change agents, such as people who ask questions like, "What are the needs here? How can I help and what can we do to make this better?" I look for people, who, after listening to stakeholders, bring creative solutions to thorny problems. If they have thought through their proposal, I invest in their action and serve as top cover.

Can you describe an experience that helped shape your career as an executive?

Five years ago, I took my first Senior Executive Service role where the supervisor who hired me was an elder statesman, a big-picture kind of leader. Before I started, a different person who was more of an engineer and focused on technology replaced that supervisor. That experience reaffirmed that my strengths are more about people-centric strategies, and that I enjoy work that is about more than just technology or standards.

What is one of your favorite books?

I’d say a fiction book that is actually a series by Iain M. Banks called the Culture. The Culture is this pluralistic society that is decentralized and incorporates artificial intelligence alongside humans, and each novel brings up an interesting metaphor of how the Culture confronts and overcomes some sort of external, rigid, top-down structure.

Where do you get started with social media?

The best thing is to just jump in and pick something. Don’t spread yourself thin, just start following and having conversations with people you’re interested in, and from that I think your network will grow. It’s about expanding those networks that expose your blind spots. Use social media to encourage your team and cultivate additional positive change agents online. I created the @fcc_cio account to intentionally listen and learn from the public.

You have said executives should spend about 80 percent of their time meeting with people, which I think could be a mind-shift for some folks. What do your meetings look like?

We have a standing status meeting with my team on Monday and Thursday, and it’s intentionally capped at 20 minutes to keep it short. The other times, it’s about listening to stakeholders within and outside the FCC. After listening, I try offering creative solutions wherever possible. As a leader, I like to visibly reward problem-solvers and not just problem-holders. My team knows that you get kudos when you bring a problem and offer solutions.

In any sector, private or public, one question that I always ask my team members is, “What brings you joy?” Asking about a person’s joy can tell you a lot about their talents and motivations. Effective leadership is really about aligning people’s talents and their passion.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 15, 2015 at 6:22 AM

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