Jamie Holcombe and Patrick Newbold discuss product management at the 2022 Imagine Nation ELC conference in Hershey, Pa.

Oct 26 2022

Imagine Nation ELC 2022: Tech Officials Cut Red Tape

Agency IT leaders describe breaking down silos to reduce bureaucracy.

Jamie Holcombe, CIO of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, eliminated the agency’s project management office in order to speed up results.

“Talk about bureaucracy and talk about losing communication and losing touch with reality. So, we blew up the PMO,” Holcombe told a panel Monday at the 2022 Imagine Nation ELC conference

Holcombe credited the action with enhancing a focus on products rather than projects and for achieving the agency’s goals faster. In his conference session, the USPTO CIO and other federal IT leaders shared how their agencies broke down silos to increase transparency and to align workers to their missions.

“Everybody has a specialty, but everybody’s playing on the team together. That’s the type of energy I wanted out of our teams that are our product guys, and that’s the way we do it at PTO now,” he added.

“Don’t confuse activity with results,” Holcombe said. “What matters to the American public for the PTO? Awarding patents and registering trademarks. That’s it.”

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USPTO Embraced a Culture Shift to Empower Employees

To help USPTO become more product-driven, Holcombe had to contend with the culture of the organization, which is renowned for employing very smart and ambitious people. To focus on results, USPTO strives to make sure that employees receive credit when warranted.

And instead of telling employees how to do their jobs, managers look to employees to learn how the jobs should be done, because they were hired for that expertise, Holcombe said.

“The fact is, if you’re expecting people to be accountable and you’re holding them to be creative and innovative, then they will be,” he said.

With this level of buy-in, USPTO has been able to engage employees in a culture shift where they are producing products rather than endlessly managing projects, Holcombe said.

“Culture eats strategy and policy for breakfast,” he warned.

DISCOVER: Why USPTO eliminated its final physical data centers.

Library of Congress Reorganized Teams Around Products

Janusz Wasiolek, deputy CIO for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, said driving his agency to increase value depends on three elements: trust, teamwork and transparency.

Stakeholders must trust the product owners, and they must form the right teams around products. Finally, the agency must support a culture of open communication around technology and its risks and challenges, he said, addressing the same panel at Imagine Nation ELC.

Prior to working for the Justice Department, Wasiolek served as an IT section chief for the Library of Congress. At the time, the library sought means to deliver more mobile content, perhaps using voice assistance devices like Amazon’s Alexa. That was a significant leap in capability for the library, Wasiolek recalled, and it had to reorganize its staff to achieve the goal.

“The first thing we did is we laid out all of our business functions into different bins, different buckets, and aligned different technologies and services into those buckets — essentially, enterprise architecture, but also, with the goal of understanding how much things cost,” he said. 

The team conducted cost modeling to see how much funding might be required to achieve their goals.

“Every roughly five years, you’re investing the same amount of money into that tool as it cost to develop it. That gave us a really good number to start projecting what we could afford to do and tying it back to functions that we needed to perform,” he said.

Distilling that information into a product roadmap transformed the IT office at the Library of Congress, Wasiolek said. Within three years, the office grew from being very siloed to being open and transparent with communications along the product roadmap.

“Having a conversation around something very visual is powerful,” Wasiolek added. “I can talk to you all day about these broad concepts, but putting everybody’s function in an Excel sheet that you can share — that visual interface is very, very powerful because you can literally see your work on a roadmap.”

Janusz Wasiolek
Every roughly five years, you’re investing the same amount of money into that tool as it cost to develop it.”

Janusz Wasiolek Deputy CIO for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division

SSA Incorporated Customer Feedback into Product Development

Patrick Newbold, deputy CIO of the Social Security Administration, also called for breaking down silos. He recalled how SSA launched an initiative called Customer Connect in 2016. 

“The initiative is a comprehensive shift in how we deliver Social Security services by integrating processes, policy and systems to anticipate customers’ needs and to deliver the right benefits at the right time,” according to a 2016 SSA Enterprise Roadmap.

EXPLORE: How SSA plans to reduce technical debt.

Addressing Imagine Nation ELC, Newbold said, “Being a public-facing agency, we’ve got to update our customers and get their feedback, but we didn’t really take it and use that data to the fullest extent.”

After the experiences of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, SSA found itself a much more unified agency, and it took a look at what it could learn from the Customer Connect pilot. One of the conclusions the agency drew was that an empowered product manager could better drive adoption.

“It took customer data to tell us that we need to do something different, but I think the pandemic really propelled us to really take a hard look at the product,” Newbold said.

Culture posed challenges to focusing on product-driven outcomes, he added. Culture change came in part through empowering teams to truly develop products. SSA began with a small team that wanted to lead the culture shift. They developed a story around how user input can create strong products, and the agency has used that story to advance adoption of new practices.

“We know that data is powerful. We know that data can tell if your solution is working, and we know data can help us have better decision-making as an agency,” Newbold said. “So, we communicate, we provide briefings, we educate. We’ll allow for a product manager to showcase their products. If someone has a product that can meet another need, we don’t need to build another one. Come join us. Allow teams to be empowered to make those decisions to drive the adoption of those solutions.”

Follow FedTech coverage for more articles from Imagine Nation ELC 2022.

Photography by Mickey McCarter

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