Interview with a Hangar partner Phaedra Chrousos
This is a series of interviews with experts across government, technology, and finance who offer perspective on their own successes and challenges, plus advice for policymakers and a look towards the future.
This month, we feature Hangar advisor Phaedra Chrousos, Chief Innovation Officer, The Libra Group; Founding Commissioner, U.S. Technology Transformation Service
Phaedra Chrousos, Chief Innovation Officer, The Libra Group
Why did you decide to go into government?
I’m an entrepreneur three times over. It just so happens that my last startup, the Technology Transformation Service (TTS), was launched in the federal government rather than the private sector. The sense of purpose you get from working for a mission greater than for your own financial gain — and even the sheer thrill of getting something done when others have told you it can’t be done — is extremely rewarding.
That said, when I became a political appointee in 2014, I had no real idea what to expect. Up until that point, government had been a big black box. But I was encouraged by the incredible talent I saw streaming into the government from the tech and startup worlds. I was also very excited to see that safe harbors for innovation were organically forming across government: 18F, USDS, various digital teams and innovation labs. I took a leap of faith that I’d land in a place where I could help make a difference, and I’m very happy I did.
What did you do with the TTS?
My role was to help provide the resources and air cover that many of these talented technologists needed to do what they do best: challenge the status quo and ultimately move government [agencies] forward, faster while saving hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter. And that they did, in spades.
In many ways, launching the TTS — which houses 18F, the Presidential Innovation Fellows and critical government-wide tech initiatives like cloud.gov, data.gov and login.gov — was a natural extension of that role. As a permanent home for technology talent in government, this new service acts as an important sanctuary for innovation, and one from which future generations of technologists can help the federal government use modern technology to better serve the American public.
How can government better engage with tech startups in the private sector?
I remember the exact moment when I realized just how little access my new colleagues had to the technologies and companies that I had been surrounded by in the private sector — it was that surprising. The government’s acquisition process is largely to blame for this disconnect. The bridge between the government and the metaphysical Silicon Valley is long and difficult to navigate. So much so that it creates a situation where the opportunity cost for an early stage tech company is simply too high to engage with the government, even if a potential piece of the annual $80 billion IT market is at stake.
Not having forward-thinking tech companies at the table when executing important projects is not just detrimental to the tech world, but also to government. So much of its work is outsourced to the private sector that the quality of teams and tools available and the time it takes to procure those teams or tools are of the utmost importance. In a world where 94% of technology projects in the federal government over $10 million are unsuccessful, it often means the difference between pass or fail.
It needs to become dramatically easier and faster to do business with the government. The government needs to make the on-boarding and actual procurement process more accessible, user friendly and faster to navigate. This is not impossible. The recent overhaul of the FedRAMP security authorization process for tech companies, which reduced the security authorization process from 18 months to less than four, while maintaining the government’s security standards, is evidence that this can be done. Here the power of design thinking and some decent software combined with the willingness to shake up the status quo was the key to its success.
What are some of the biggest opportunities you see for technology to help make government more effective?
For a long time I had a quote up on my wall: “You can’t win the future with the government of the past.” This is more true today than ever before. The first major opportunity that technology companies have is to simply bring the federal government up to the present. User interfaces harken back to the 1980s. Systems run on old computer programming languages from the 1970s. Paper-based processes are too often the norm. Most importantly, applications fail to deliver the level of service the public expects and deserves.
Many federal agencies have committed to sunsetting their legacy applications, and this is where opportunity lies. Technology companies can provide the government with modular, cloud-based, secure applications that can help streamline complex workflows and create transparency and intelligence where little exists today. And I believe they can do this at a dramatically lower cost to the American taxpayer.
I also hope technology companies will step up to help create a government of the future — one that reimagines how it interacts with the American public, that uses data to drive decision making, that continually improves its processes, and that stays ahead of the latest technologies, whether they are virtual reality, cryptocurrency, drones, autonomous vehicles and whatever the future has in store.
What is your advice for the next administration?
My advice is to not just continue the great work that’s been started over the past few years, but take what’s working and place some big bets. As a citizen, I want our country to be as effective and efficient as possible in delivering services to its citizens, regardless of who is in power. This is one way we make that happen.