Dec 31 2009

Daniel G. Mintz, CIO for the Transportation Department

Photo: Gary Landsman

Daniel G. Mintz doesn’t think he needs to be so smart. Fortunately, however, he is. Calling his new role as CIO for the Transportation Department a dream job that answers a long-held desire to work in public service, Mintz considers himself a coordinator with a tech road map and a proven private-sector track record. FedTech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland spoke with Mintz about the road ahead and his plan to tackle governance at DOT.

FedTech: How is the Transportation Department’s performance on the President’s Management Agenda shaping up?

Mintz: When I came here, I found that the staff tended to focus too much on trying to satisfy the requirements that were imposed on us. Now, we talk about why these requirements are valuable to Transportation. That’s important because ultimately a departmental CIO plays a coordinating role. We must get employees in different parts of the department to believe the requirements are of value so they’ll do them. I consider leadership the art of getting people to do things when you’re not in the room. If you spend the time and say, “Here’s this requirement, but it’s valuable to this operating administration or to your office,” then employees may do it because they want to.

Also, DOT is made up of various operating administrations. There was no mechanism to rate how each division was implementing information technology and security initiatives. So we established our own stoplight chart — the green, yellow, red chart — for each of the operating administrations and each initiative, then created quantitative measurements to define the colors and ratings. Then we met monthly with the operating administrations to review their ratings. Rather than waiting until the end of the year to look at how we were doing, we now look at ourselves monthly — both on a component level and at the department as a whole. Those are the two main changes we made, and they seem to be working.

FedTech: What do you do when people feel the requirements aren’t valuable?

Mintz: Where there are problems, it’s mainly because there’s a disconnect in terms of understanding. Either we don’t realize exactly what the Office of Management and Budget is trying to achieve or we haven’t explained the value to employees. Some broad initiatives are going to be good for the government but may help certain agencies more than others. Our goal is to work with OMB to figure out how to deal with that.

I’ll give you an example. OMB is asking us to create consortiums of agencies over the next few years and to work together to process grants. Some agencies are far along in terms of automation, while others still do things manually.

In the next year or two, we’ll put together a departmentwide plan to handle grants. Those operating administrations that have made large investments in automation will be at a certain stage, while those that are still manual will be at a different stage. We need to work with each one to solve both the funding and the resource investment issues.

FedTech: That’s a huge change in the way that agencies have done business, but automation still will be needed to support the grant management process.

Mintz: Right. We have an obligation to be responsive in terms of information flow to the citizens and our stakeholders, and when things are done manually, we may not be able to provide as robust a set of data because computer systems are needed to access the data in different ways.

FedTech: What do you hope to have accomplished when you’ve completed your first year on the job?

Mintz: The first thing we’re focusing on in fiscal 2007 is related to governance — the decision process. At DOT, many decisions are made informally, or they’re made by people who have organizational power or strong positions within the department. To deal with that, we’ve revamped the Investment Review Board, which is a method for making decisions on a departmental level. We’re making more business decisions than IT decisions now and involving more senior people in the decisions. That’s a major institutional change, because if you don’t have the business people making business decisions, you can’t do anything else.

In fiscal 2008, we’ll define processes and project management more robustly. That’s important because if you’re going to make a decision for an organization as large as DOT, you need to have it followed elsewhere and also have people be aware that the decision was made. The only way you can do that is to have an organization that’s mature enough to have departmentwide processes defined. Otherwise, decisions aren’t replicated. You see that all over the place, not just in government, but in large companies as well — the same decision is made in 12 different ways in 12 different places because there’s no mechanism to implement decisions coherently.

FedTech: What are some of the roadblocks to governance and getting people to go along?

Mintz: People with a strong sense of mission worry that if you allow other people to make investment decisions you might compromise their mission, so they’re protective. You have to reassure people that everyone’s opinions are being brought to the table in an organized way. The other challenge is integrating all of this into the budget cycle with the budget office. For example, we’ve had a great working relationship with the CFO and the finance people. But IT decisions have to be made in an integrated fashion with the budget community — they’re not independent. In the next budget cycle, we’re going to integrate all the activities I talked about and partner more with OMB in budget creation.

FedTech: Would you tell us a bit about the projects you’re doing with the Housing and Urban Development Department?

Mintz: One of OMB’s goals is to get agencies to work together on projects — shared services. HUD CIO Lisa Schlosser and I are talking about how our departments can work together. We’ve explored how we can coordinate and centralize some grants processing. It’s been a valuable experience figuring out how our agencies can work together on a more regular basis.

The quality of the people I’ve come across in DOT is really wonderful. These are bright, dedicated, hard-working people who want to do things that have meaning, who want to make change and want to have an impact. My role is to set up situations where they’re given the opportunity to be creative and successful. They don’t always get the support they need. When Lisa Schlosser and I get together, we’re enabling our staffs to generate ideas.

FedTech: Is there anything else you want to mention?

Mintz: The main thing is that I consider myself very lucky that I’ve been given the opportunity at this point in my life to participate in public services. I’ve had a long career in the private sector, and I had hoped that I’d have an opportunity to look back and say that I’d helped move a government organization forward. And it’s just been the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had professionally.

FedTech: Obviously your time at Sun Microsystems has influenced your management style. What did your private-sector experience bring to the DOT table?

Mintz:The organizational differences between a large company and a large governmental organization are much less than people think. The same institutional reasons that make decisions, leadership, communication and definition of priorities difficult exist in both types of organizations.

Managing in the government sector is harder, and private industry is, in a sense, a simpler life. There, profit and loss is a shortcut way of deciding whether you’re successful or not. In government, you have multiple stakeholders, not all of whom are in agreement, and all of whom have legitimacy — you need to pay attention to them. There are the citizens, the ultimate customers; congressional members, who represent both their particular interests and their constituents’ interests; OMB and the White House, with their goals; your department’s management and its political leadership — all of whom may have slightly different goals. Then you have issues relating to security and similar things — all of which hit you all at once — and you have to do them all at once, even if at some level they’re inconsistent.

At Sun, I was comfortable reaching out to a lot of different perspectives. I’ve encouraged my staff to talk to a lot of different people, so they bring in different perspectives to help people here see what’s going on in the industry.