‘Focus on the customer is the rallying point’: US federal CIO Clare Martorana on how to drive transformation in government

By on 24/05/2023 | Updated on 15/06/2023
A picture of US federal CIO Clare Martorana on how to drive transformation in government
Clare Martorana, chair of TMF and US chief information officer

The US federal government’s chief information officer is at the frontline of driving transformation in the world’s most influential government. She speaks to Global Government Forum about how to lead change across the federal workforce, and her own inspiration for joining them

How do you drive transformation in government? It is one of the perennial questions faced by public service leaders at a time when digital and data holds the potential to unlock improvements to services – but there can often be negative reactions from both organisations and individuals in how to adapt to change.

Clare Martorana, the US federal government’s chief information officer, has faced – and overcome – the wary reaction of public servants to, in her words, “the fancy digital kids, coming in here to tell us how to change the world”.

The US government’s highest technology official recalls joining the federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from the private sector in 2016 to find “an organisation that had extraordinary talent, but a bit of resistance to the digital environment”.

There was a digital service team and chief technology officer in the department prior to Martorana arrival who “had done tremendous work cutting the roads” for transformation, but, to continue the metaphor, those roads were not yet paved.

“I benefitted from that work already happening, but the resistance building around it was almost institutional when I arrived. So we had the great opportunity to be able to work with those civil servants, and other public servants, and really try to understand the problem we were trying to solve.”

Officials had been affected, she says, by previous transformations that had not delivered.

“They got optimistic about something once, and then it didn’t happen, and they get all depressed,” she says.

Martorana joined the VA, through the US Digital Service, having previously held senior roles at healthcare firms WebMD and Everyday Health, and set about building confidence in the organisation about digital transformation.

As well as disappointment that previous transformation programmes had failed to make an impact, resistance was also down to many civil servants being dismayed that their ideas had been taken forward in the past – “they had the ideas, but they weren’t championed” – and because moves to improve the VA’s use of technology had hit cultural problems.

In particular, the name of the new digital project was hindering buy-in from officials.

“The digital team that was there prior to me arriving stood up a new technology platform, but we had a brand problem, which is we named the new project vets.gov. And this was rejected, basically, by the career staff at VA. They were like, ‘we’re [called] the VA, we’re not vets’.”

So the digital team did the “brave and bold thing” and got rid of their own brand, instead transferring the work to develop upgrades services for veterans to improve the VA’s existing structures and technology. “We focused on what was best for veterans, and relaunched and merged with the VA’s platform. This gave them a modern technology platform and website that allowed them to actually accelerate their digital delivery.”

This move helped build a shared understanding of how digital transformation can help with frontline delivery of services such as healthcare, pensions and housing assistance to veterans.

“Keeping the focus on the customer was an easy rallying point for us to be able to move things forward”, recalls Martorana, which was vital to getting the organisational buy-in needed for changes.

“Everyone that went to work every morning at the VA wanted to help veterans.” she says. “We had that North Star that we all shared – and we really focused on the problems that those veterans were experiencing, to kind of knock down those barriers.

“We focused on the customer – who was the veteran, and the family member of the veteran, or the survivor of the veteran – and we could bureaucracy bust by constantly bringing the conversation back to the person we were all there to serve. That changed everything.”

Clare Martorana speaking at the Innovation in cyber security session at the Innovation 2023 conference

How cyber security can drive technology modernisation

As the federal chief information officer, Martorana now works to spread this idea of how modern technology can help deliver for citizens throughout the most powerful government in the world.

In particular, she leads the implementation of the US federal government‘s IT operating plan, which highlights four key priorities to help the federal government use technology to deliver on its missions.

These four priorities are: improving cybersecurity, IT modernisation, developing a digital-first citizen experience, and using data as a strategic asset.

We have to make some bold moves, because that antiquated technology is not serving our needs today

And – informed by her experience at the VA – Martorana has a clear plan for how to make progress: using cybersecurity as “the point of the arrow” to drive reform.

Improved cybersecurity is an urgent requirement across the US federal government, she says, because “our adversaries are aggressive, and they are constantly attacking our system”.

Cybersecurity has been a priority of the administration of president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris since day one, says Martorana. They came into office amid attacks on the US federal government through flaws in network monitoring software SolarWinds, and have also served through cyberattacks on national infrastructure, including on the Colonial Pipeline oil system.

Biden signed an executive order in May 2021 focusing on how to implement stronger cybersecurity standards in the federal government.

“Everyone’s consciousness was raised at the same time, which gives us a wonderful opportunity,” Martorana says. “The Biden-Harris administration has been focused since day one on cybersecurity, so it does give us a wonderful palette to paint from, but the foundational work is data, IT modernisation and delivering for our customers.”

Martorana says much of the work to improve cybersecurity is about covering the basics. “Think about it like a house: we have to lock our windows, we have to lock the front door, we have to put in an alarm system. So all of the component pieces of the executive order on cybersecurity are these foundational [elements].

“The most basic things – multi-factor authentication and making sure that our data is encrypted in rest and in transit – are foundational, and that is where we are having the greatest impact.”

Opportunities to address broader IT modernisation then ride on that arrow. “In order to achieve multi-factor authentication log in, and encrypting data both in rest and in transit, you have to modernise your systems.

“And as you’re modernising those systems, you darn well better be doing research with your users, and making sure you understand what your customer needs, as well as what the employees need. So you have the forward momentum of cybersecurity carrying along IT modernisation and customer experience, as well as data – everything we’re talking about is data. All of these things create the momentum for changing the environment that we’re operating in.”

Spreading ‘silos of excellence’

Martorana says that her biggest lesson for her time in government, both in the VA and now as the federal CIO – her office sits within the Office of Management and Budget – is that modern technology platforms can catalyse reform of old government programmes and systems so that they are ready for the future.

She says there are currently “silos of excellence” in the government, where modern technology is being combined with the federal government’s “incredibly talented staff”.

But that is still the exception, not the rule, across the 430 agencies and bureaus in the United States federal government, and “there are many, many programmes that are still working on old and antiquated technology”.

“We really understand that we have to make some bold moves, because that antiquated technology is not serving our needs today, which includes cybersecurity. It is a big challenge, but it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

The IT operating plan is “a very tactical” plan in line with former US president Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum to “do what you can, with what you have, where you are”, Martorana says.

“With the operating plan, we’re trying to work on what we have where we are, be tactical about it, and then start to point towards a vision for the future.”

This overall vision is being developed based on improving the citizen experience of government, and aligns both with Biden’s December 2021 executive order on transforming the customer experience of federal services and the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act passed by the US Congress, which among other things calls for government services to be digital by default.

Focusing on how technology can unlock better services for citizens is “absolutely the best unifying principle” for transformation, Martorana says. Biden’s executive order – which set out 36 commitments to improve customer experience across 17 federal agencies – requires agencies to prioritise citizens by tackling inefficient services by “thinking not only about the customer, the singular customer, but how they also transit between different agencies”, she says.

Read more: ‘True transformation requires leadership from the top’: reaction to Biden’s federal services reform plan

One of the things that I will someday get made into a t-shirt is: ‘We don’t digitise bureaucracy’.

Among policy problems she is keen to solve is improving the experience of dealing with government around life events, and in particular for soon-to-be-retirees.

“We have members of the public that are getting ready to retire. And they have to do two different things when they get ready to retire – they have to engage with Social Security to make sure that they get their pension check, and they also have to interact with Medicare, to make sure that they get their health insurance.”

However, these are on different websites, and the applications need to be made at different times, and as a result, there is a difference of around one million people in the numbers signed up for the two benefits.

Resolving this is “a challenge of design and digital experience”, Martorana says. “We should make it so clear that you’re on a journey, and you need to accomplish these two things.”

But Martorana is confident progress can be made.

“We know how to design those experiences to be able to reduce the number of people who don’t know to check the other box,” she says, adding that she has not yet seen a technology problem in government yet can’t be solved or has not been solved previously in the private sector.

“There are very few things left that we need to invent for today’s interaction in the 21st century,” she says. “When we get to post quantum computing, we have a lot of things we need to invent, but we’re not we’re not quite there yet. But dealing with today’s technology is really about bringing people along on the journey, showing them how we can be more effective and efficient in serving our customers, and also how their workload can become less tedious.”

As part of harnessing the expertise that already exists, Martorana is looking towards her peers in other governments. For example, she highlights the work of the Government Digital Service in the UK in improving the UK’s top 75 services, and is a keen observer of the work of digital government trailblazers Estonia and Iceland.

And there is another, perhaps surprising, international peer that proves what can be done: Ukraine. Martorana was inspired by a meeting with Ukrainian digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov.

“He was so inspiring and said one of the things that I will someday get made into a t-shirt, which is: ‘We don’t digitise bureaucracy’. They have such a sense of urgency, because they are in a warfighting posture, and they’re launching digital products every week to meet the needs of their customers in a war zone.”

In a very different peacetime context, Martorana would like to import some of that approach.

“We have to look at that and say we are in a peacetime economy but my goodness, the sense of urgency is brilliant, because it is forcing them to look at the many ways that their government has sprawled and consolidate that to a focus for their individual customers, which is quite exciting.”

Working to inject this attitude into the US federal government is a challenge Martorana relishes. The US digital service programme that brought her into government encourages technology professionals to join for “tours of civic service”, and it was this spirit of service that encouraged her to apply to help change what she felt was the negative discourse in the country, at the time of the fiercely contested presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“My mom and dad were social workers, and they always said: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” she reflects. “I felt the need to give back: I’ve had such incredible benefits of being born in the United States and living my life in the United States.

“My mom resettled refugees as part of her job, and I was often interacting with folks who were new to the United States – and the optimism that they had was overwhelming. It really inspired me to say, ‘is there a way, a channel I could join, that would give me the opportunity to give back to my country?’.”

She did not anticipate staying beyond her original US Digital Service term, but found the impact of working in government too vital and engaging to leave.

“Our mission is unparalleled. You can have an impact on such an enormous scale working in government. The impact you have is so, so much bigger than anything I can do in the private sector. It’s hard to step away, because mission matters.”

Clare Martorana was speaking to Global Government Forum at the Innovation 2023 conference. You can watch the event in full, including Clare Martorana’s sessions on innovation in Digital Transformation and innovation in cyber security here.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *