Does the US government need a COO? - Baltimore


Does the US government need a COO?

It's among the ideas elevated in a new report that's designed to help the presidential transition on tech-driven government modernization. We talked to one of the authors: former 18F Executive Director and Fearless Digital Services lead Greg Godbout.

Greg Godbout leads digital services at Fearless.

(Courtesy photo)

Introducing new technology often comes in phases. First there’s the smaller-scale experiments that provide lots of learning, and show the way to what works. Another is scaling, which gets it out to lots of people with an eye toward full adoption.

Within the federal government, the authors of a new Day One Project report that was developed in line with the presidential transition see the modernization of government services on this trajectory. And Ann Dunkin and Greg Godbout, who both played key roles in tech transformation during the Obama administration, think there’s a need for more of a move toward scaling the kind of services that are in line with the digital era.

With the need for digitally powered government services that match what people expect in daily life only growing and the government only spending more, change agents have gotten more leeway to test new approaches over the last seven years. But in their report, Dunkin and Godbout point out that these are “small success stories,” and on the whole the government still struggles.

Read the report

On the tech trajectory, Godbout sees a need to grow past startup into growth phase.

“The experiments have been done. They work. They can be done legally and effectively in government. We now need to scale them across the entire enterprise,” said Godbout, who during the Obama years served as CTO of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was a founding member and executive director of 18F, the agency created in 2014 to improve technology in the federal government. He now leads digital services and business development at downtown Baltimore-based software firm Fearless, which has been a vocal and active participant in government tech change.


The need for scaling informs four recommendations developed by Dunkin and Godbout as they sought to inform the next presidential administration’s approach for IT modernization. These steps from their report include:

  • Centralize operations — Elevate a role like a U.S. COO or cabinet-level General Services Administration administrator. This includes prioritizing the GSA as the government agency for “operations & implementation.”
  • Presidential leadership fellowship — Create a program that would bring 2,000 mid- to late-career professionals with experience in “modern service delivery” to work in government for four-year tours.
  •  Agency transformation playbook — At the agency level, create a set of “plays” for modernization, drawing both from the public and private sector. This builds on the Digital Services Playbook created for the whole government by the U.S. Digital Service.
  • Transformation advisory board — Create an appointed board of leaders that oversee these efforts, and make recommendations. This senior-level group can also help to make sure there is continuity of efforts between administrations, Godbout said.

The civic technologists were among a group of experts in science and technology organized earlier this year by the Federation of American Scientists to deliver proposals through an initiative called the Day One Project Accelerator.

The idea was to prepare and deliver proposals that would help government in areas that might not get as many headlines as secretary of state picks, but remain important as an administration gets set up. And they were preparing these recommendations regardless of who ended up winning the White House. So after Election Day passed and the results were tabulated, they released the report as planned.

New ideas also have a trajectory to become action items. First they show up in policy recommendations from smart people, and that can be a start as they travel up the chain to leaders. To that end, Day One Project cohort members weren’t acting as formal advisors, so it’s not as though there is a guarantee that these will be heard. But with release of the report came word that they are represented: Dunkin, who is currently CTO of Dell for state and local government, was selected as an agency lead on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team for the EPA, where she previously served as CIO.

To be sure, this year has been unusual, and that has now extended to the presidential transition. Not only was counting prolonged in a pandemic, but President Donald Trump’s campaign is continuing to challenge the results that showed Biden as the president elect, even as it fails to convince judges of fraud. This also delayed the transition, as members of Biden’s team just got the word on Monday that they could officially begin coordinating with Trump’s team.

Based on his own experience inside government, Godbout said that administrations see transitions this way: “It’s a question of how much momentum they can start with.”

When it comes to the modernization piece that he elevated ideas on, Godbout believes there is lots of progress on modernization that already exists to build on. So just as it did when 18F and USDS formed, the call is once again going out that it’ll take more people getting involved.

“I hope more people come in and help their government,” he said. “All of these different efforts involve citizens rolling up their sleeves.”

Companies: Fearless, 18F
People: Greg Godbout
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