Q&A: GSA's Dave McClure Talks Federal IT

McClure shares his thoughts on innovation, failing fast and federal IT.

A lot has changed in government since Dave McClure took the reins as an associate administrator at the General Services Administration in August 2009.

Under his leadership at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, the agency worked across government to create a common approach for vetting the security of federal cloud services as well as to advance the administration’s digital agenda through websites such as Data.gov and Challenge.gov — and most recently, with the launch of 18F, an in-house incubator for digital services.

McClure’s last day at GSA is May 30. He spoke to FedTech Social Media Journalist Nicole Blake Johnson earlier this month about his accomplishments and past challenges, innovation and the future of federal IT.

Dave McClure
Photo: General Services Administration


FEDTECH How has your office evolved over the past five years, and how has that transformation impacted the way government operates?

MCCLURE: When I got there, the office was [called] Citizen Services and Communications. The reason for that was because the office ran the USA.gov portal, so we were sort of seen as the front door into government. The communications piece made sense to connect the two together.

But when I got there, I told [then-GSA head] Martha Johnson, “I am not a communications or public affairs person.” She found somebody to do that, and they actually worked in my office for about a year. I told her I would rather recreate the office and focus it on digital innovation and cloud solutions and more IT innovation. She agreed. That’s when we split communications out, and we created Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. That’s kind of how it all started.

Vivek Kundra was the CIO. Cloud computing was getting its legs. We began talking about doing FedRAMP [the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program], and Data.gov was created — lots of innovative websites we started creating for the White House. It started taking on more of the quick, iterative, agile, digital solutions that we could create and share with the rest of the government. So, it changed the office’s direction, I think, quite a bit.

FEDTECH What’s the size of your office today, and how has that changed over time?

MCCLURE: It hasn’t changed in size much at all. It’s less than a hundred people, and people find that hard to believe. We have 96 people that do all of this work. We have probably about 40 contractors that we use in different capacities at any given time. But we don’t have enough people to do all the work, and particularly the new technical work; we often have to bring in a contractor to do that. So, it's a relatively lean and mean fighting machine. It's two- and three-people teams doing pretty significant stuff.

FEDTECH You’ve been an advocate of innovation and failing fast if failure comes. How far has government come in fostering that kind of culture?

MCCLURE: It starts at the top. I believe in that. I believe in moving quickly, and if you fail, fail fast and fail fruitfully. Learn from that, and use what you can so that it’s not chalked up as “We spent lots of money and got nothing for it.” We don’t want to be saddled with that.

What we try to do is first of all set things up to be successful from the beginning and scope them out and set expectations that are in line with what can actually be delivered. Then we monitor things really closely. If something looks like it's getting off the tracks, we try to correct it quickly and that helps get the success rate up pretty high. We don’t have many failures I can point to in the timeline. There have been one or two things that we created for the White House, but they lost interest in it.

FEDTECH Can you provide examples?

MCCLURE: One of them was FedSpace. We created a collaborative platform that could be used governmentwide, so that employees could find each other, collaborate and create communities of common interest. We built it when the e-government budget was high, and [the] next year, the budget got slashed virtually $2 [million] to $3 million, so we had to shed some things. That was one of the things that was shed.

We also created a performance site that was based upon citizen impact on service deliveries. We were creating an app that could give feedback on different processes, such as waiting in line or applying for something at an agency like the Social Security Administration or the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]. It wasn’t quite that real time. The first version of it was more based upon existing data at the agency, but we were trying to make performance transparent. And again budget cuts, and something had to go.

I don’t even chalk them up as failures. We didn’t ever take them to completion like we were hoping to, and that’s another story. You are going to encounter things like that where resources dry up or you have to make tough decisions about lots of good stuff. I have got them started; now the priorities have changed, and the funding is changed. I have got to make some decisions about what to keep alive and what to let go . It's pretty tough stuff to do.

FEDTECH How do you make those tough decisions when there are competing priorities?

MCCLURE: Well, there are a couple of things that I try to do. I tell everybody at the outset that we are stopping or slowing down or are completely shutting down something. It’s not necessarily a commentary on the work. The last thing you want to do is for people to get the morale issues like, “I poured myself into this, this is really a good project, now you are killing it — why? You have got favorites, are you picking favorites or something?” And you try and say, “No, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with really tough priority decisions and funding.” You have to give those teams a lot of credit.

Even though they may not get the glory of another project, which is elevated much higher than theirs, you have to give those people a lot of credit, and tell them they did a great job and not let them just fall through the cracks. I have always said, “I am the one who will stand in front of whoever — Congress, the Hill, OMB [Office of Management and Budget], the White House, the GSA administrator — and defend what we do, whether its continuing, stopping or accelerating a project.” I am not going to put a project manager into that role, and I am not going to put a team in front of somebody. It's me.

I am the one who's making the decisions. I think when people see a leader is willing to operate that way and then can justify why things are being done, rather than just doing them behind closed doors, it makes a big difference. It’s still not easy but it makes a difference.

FEDTECH Do you consider the launch of FedRAMP as one of your office’s biggest accomplishments?

MCCLURE: Yeah, it is. Not only because it took so long but because it's just a game changer, and it took a lot of cross-governmental activities, consensus building and agreement to get it to work. It wasn’t something I just created in my office. We had multiple stakeholders involved from all over government. There were days we thought, “This will never happen, somebody is going to veto it or try to kill it,” and we continued persevering down the road. So, it is a major accomplishment.

It’s changing the way I think security is being done. It's still early. It's got some more roadbeds to go over. It's going to change, clearly, over time. But starting at the end of last year and this year, the confidence levels in the industry buy-in have been overwhelming, so you have the industry now talking about how good it is. And that’s what you want. You want the people who are being subjected to it or using it saying, “I like this,” rather than me alone going out and saying, “This is really good.” I would rather let the voice of the customers say that.

FEDTECH What do you see for FedRAMP after June 5?

MCCLURE: I don’t know. It's not our call. It's really an OMB call. OMB owns the policy. They issued the directive calling for agencies to be compliant by the June deadline. It's a dual-edged sword. Some companies have gone through and been certified; others are in the process. Then there are agencies. Our biggest challenge is on the agency side where they may have existing contracts with existing providers, and they have not certified them against the FedRAMP baseline. That’s their job; it's not a GSA job to do that, necessarily.

That’s where I think everybody is wondering what happens. We don’t have really, really good data on what's in compliance and what's out of compliance. I think it's being put together right now through the OMB data collection, but until you know that, it's hard to say with a lot of certainty, “Is there a lot of stuff through this? Is there lot of stuff yet to go through?”

I don’t think we know the complete facts on it yet. But it's May, and the deadline is June. So, being realistic, no one can wave a magic wand and get everything done in that kind of time frame. OMB will have to make a decision on putting pressure on the agencies, putting more transparency around where they are and making it happen through those oversight powers that they have.

FEDTECH Where is government in terms of cloud adoption? There still appears to be confusion around the cloud service models.

MCCLURE: There are still some semantic issues, but it's much more defined than what it used be, particularly for infrastructure. It's much clearer what cloud is infrastructure and Software as a Service. The mystery is the platform.

And it's because there are many shades of grey for that. There is not a single type of cloud platform. I think you will see a lot of discussion around creating platforms that plug into infrastructure and host applications on top. It's just making the stack of computing more complete. The infrastructure piece should become very commoditized and very easy to buy. Prices should be pretty inexpensive because it’s just storage and computing.

The applications space is what starts getting exciting, because that’s where the real value lies in trying to find applications that focus right on the mission and service delivery. But it needs to be put together in a platform where the right tools and processes and approaches are also encircled around it, so that there is almost a standard way of doing things in a cloud environment that is very efficient, organized and very cost effective. We are just not there yet.

Part of it is just the evolution of cloud computing in general. There are some commercial entities that are much further along, not everything will go all the way to cloud environments, per se. We are in this hybrid world where some things will stay in government data centers; data will then maybe be shipped out to a provider space to do computing, assessment, analytics or to be combined with information from other agencies, then brought back in. But the long-term storage of it and protection is so important that the agency may feel it needs to own this and not park data anywhere else. I will go out and use the power of computing in the cloud space of commercial providers, but I want to bring that back and actually protect it myself.

FEDTECH What advice do you have for the next OCSIT associate administrator?

MCCLURE: Kathy Conrad will be acting until someone is hired. That person is going to have the same challenges I had of priorities, people and time. 18F is a fast agile development group trying to help agencies put in solutions. It's going to be a demanding environment to stay on top of what's now a bigger portfolio for the office. I think [GSA Administrator] Dan [Tangherlini] is looking for somebody now that’s comfortable in that space and has operated that way so that there is not a heavy lift for the new person coming in.

FEDTECH Have you decided what's next for you?

MCCLURE: No. I know I am going to go to the private sector, but I don’t know where yet. I am talking to different companies about different opportunities and trying to figure out what’s a good match for me and for someone else. I am at that point where I want to focus on something that’s innovative and impactful and exciting. I am just exploring right now.

May 29 2014