Outgoing Commerce Department CIO pushed to shake up the federated model

When Simon Szykman became CIO of the U.S. Department of Commerce in May 2010, he inherited a federated IT organization that needed to improve its efficiency and effectiveness on multiple fronts. So Szykman applied his strategic vision and consensus-building skills to make progress in both areas.

Simon Szykman, CIO, United States Department of Commerce United States Department of Commerce

Now he’s looking for new challenges; he announced early this year that, after serving four years as Commerce CIO, he will leave the public sector to work in private industry.

What was your biggest achievement during your tenure at the Commerce Department? Commerce is a federated agency with a number of independent decision-making organizations with regard to IT spending and spending in general. Since I’ve been here, there have been dramatic changes in how IT is managed departmentwide and a realization that the decentralized approach wasn’t going to be the most efficient or effective in terms of cost or quality of services.

What prompted the move away from the decentralized approach? It was a growing recognition of best practices coupled with a belt-tightening fiscal environment. The inefficiencies that were in place prior to my tenure were becoming less and less tolerable in the fiscal climate we were dealing with.

What was most challenging about moving to a more centralized model? The culture of a federated agency and the need for change management across a very large organization. The approach to dealing with that is really working with large numbers of different stakeholders from the internal CIO council — at Commerce that includes representative CIOs from all our large bureaus and organizations — and CFOs and senior career officials and in some cases political [stakeholders] as well. We focused on building consensus for the types of changes we wanted to put in place.

How did you overcome the challenges? Obviously communication is a key part of that. Another important part was trying to work with objective, data-based business cases rather than just appealing to emotional arguments. We worked with data and identified opportunities for improving our services or identified in advance what savings we could expect, and laid out an analytical business case for what we were trying to implement. There was also the need to deal with concerns that the agencies had, concerns that they would be able to maintain service levels once they consolidated infrastructure or services. There were perceptions of risk that had to be effectively managed. It’s a complex undertaking.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in that proc­ess? [The importance] of shared ownership and joint accountability for success, because these types of large change management initiatives aren’t going to be successful by the efforts of one individual. Ownership has to cut across organizations. One thing that helped me was I had been the CIO of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology prior to this position, so I was able to appreciate the bureau-level perspectives, and that helped in communications.

How do you build consensus without burdening initiatives with unreasonable demands from others? People who have their own requirements don’t perceive them to be unreasonable. So it’s being able to appreciate different perspectives and strike the right balance. Having a shared commitment to reach the desired objective is part of it. Everyone has to buy in.

You’ve called CIO empowerment an issue in government. What do you mean? At Commerce, I have direct management and budget authority over less than 2% of the department IT spending. Things don’t happen merely because I say they must happen. A big challenge is getting everything done in a coordinated, well-managed fashion. We are moving forward in working collectively in a coordinated way. But it remains a federated environment.

You’ve blogged about your efforts to cut waste. How do you approach this challenging task? It was done in a very collaborative fashion and an analytical, data-based fashion. We looked at where we were spending money and on what types of technology. We then looked at opportunities — the types of savings we might achieve by improving how we were buying certain types of technology. Then we looked for where we could make improvements without a tremendous amount of effort or time. So we did prioritization and built consensus for those that were most impactful and easiest to implement.

How long has this been on your agenda? It is still ongoing. We did our first departmentwide strategic sourcing contract over two years ago to purchase PCs, replacing over 100 contracts. The most recent strategic sourcing initiative we just completed was a departmentwide contract for networking equipment. Once we reach the goals we want to achieve, we pick up a new one and keep moving forward.

Can efficiency efforts be institutionalized? Can they become routine? I think they can. But efficiency isn’t the only goal. That implies the primary objective is just to cut costs. Sometimes you’re looking at improvement of services through consolidations or freeing up resources to deploy new services. But it can be institutionalized once people start to think about departmentwide initiatives in a new way. Once that happens, over a period of time the default approach to purchasing or deploying new services in the IT world can really shift.

Early in your tenure, a review found that the Commerce Department didn’t have adequate cybersecurity. What was your strategy for improving it? We had to improve cybersecurity from a number of angles to obtain measurable improvements. We looked at how we were managing risk for our systems, and we’ve started looking at operations, rather than have this just be a security compliance exercise. We looked at existing policies and where there were gaps, and developed new policies where we needed them. We put in more automation and continuous monitoring so we can get more real-time visibility into the state of our systems. And we established metrics and measured how we were doing and reported those metrics up to senior levels, so we were creating high-level visibility.

What’s on the Commerce Department’s agenda regarding big data? Just a few months ago, the Commerce secretary unveiled a new strategic plan, and one pillar is data and how we can make Commerce data available to citizens, businesses [and] the private sector to create new businesses and foster economic growth. Ultimately the goal is to make that data discoverable. You have to develop formats that describe the data so others can discover it. You have to create platforms for that data to be disseminated. This really is in the early formative stages, but we already have examples of how organizations are starting to think about this.

How are you using data to drive decisions? Over the next few years, we’ll do a modernization of our financial systems that will provide us with more effective, consolidated information about our finances, and that will support better decision-making from the budget stages to actual acquisitions. The other area is the use of data to improve performance management. We’re looking at what metrics are going to be the key for performance priorities and using those metrics to track our own performance.

What’s next for you? I’m still exploring opportunities, but my next career step will definitely involve IT. I have three main goals. The first is to have fun. The second is to learn — and there’s lot I can learn from the private sector. The third is to help the company I work for prosper.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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