A few weeks after leaving the General Services Administration for a job with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Bob De Luca returned to the government’s acquisition agency to serve as the temporary head of the Technology Transformation Service, a group of programs looking to be a central IT resource for the rest of government.
De Luca led GSA’s Centers of Excellence—a consultancy program focused on helping agencies identify modernization priorities and find contractors able to help meet those goals—for two and a half years before officially leaving the agency in June. He moved over to FDIC to assume the role of deputy chief information officer, but was asked to return to GSA one week into the new job.
While De Luca is only at GSA now on a temporary basis, the acting TTS director joined Nextgov to talk about the service’s future and the business case for federal agencies that use its programs.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: What’s next for TTS? From your time there prior and your time there now, what new stuff have you seen starting to bubble up? What can we expect in the future?
De Luca: I want to start off first by saying that I am honored to be here in this role as acting director of TTS. It’s an honor to serve the people of TTS and our current customers. It’s a really great organization and amazing people and amazing capacity.
As far as what’s next for TTS—right now, I’m mostly focused on a couple things. Number one, delivering value to our agency customer base and, two, to strengthening TTS as a whole. There’s enormous power within the TTS umbrella, and I think that is mostly harnessed by the integration of those pieces.
As for specific programs, there’s a couple things we could probably dive into. One is in the identity portfolio. It’s one of our focus areas. Within the identity portfolio, we are looking to expand that tremendously.
I wanted to clarify what you mean when you say identity programs. Are these identity, access and control management services; is this PIV cards?
It’s Login.gov—we have the identity [program management office] and Login.gov.
We have two significantly sized pilot programs, one with [the Veterans Affairs Department] and one with [the Small Business Administration]. We’re looking to expand upon those and into others.
The other thing is … I was part of the Centers of Excellence program before this. And I can say that in the future—and in the current, right now—we’re modifying a little bit of the approach. When I first started two years ago with GSA and TTS, we were going for all five centers working at very large agencies that could handle, frankly, that amount of change at one time. We have recently pivoted, and I think it looks like for the foreseeable future—we now have six centers—we’re not going to be attacking that at six centers at a time. We’re going to be going like we have in one, two or three centers. It’s a lot of change. And, frankly, it’s more expensive than some of the smaller and midsize agencies can really put forth in a very short period of time.
I think, strategically, TTS is in a great position. We have enormous capacity. I think that there are a number of very large challenges out there. I think that the group that we have can really address them.
What are you all doing with robotic process automation? I remember talk—maybe a year ago—about a potential new CoE around RPA. Is there still interest or a plan to roll that out?
We are doing RPA work. It’s folded into the AI focus area. So, we have both an AI Community of Practice and the Centers of Excellence has an AI Center of Excellence. Specifically with RPA, we’re doing a piece of work right now with the Department of Labor.
At least part of TTS is based on a fee-for-service model. Can you walk us through TTS’s business model?
The business model aspect of it is really focused into two halves: there’s the Solution side and then there’s the Clients and Markets, or services, side of the business.
On the Clients and Markets side, it is all fee-for-service through the Acquisition Service Fund, ASF. We create interagency agreements—for the [Presidential Innovation Fellows] program, the CoE and 18F program—with our customers and our customer agencies. They use their appropriated dollars and they transfer them to GSA and GSA performs a service.
However, on the Solutions side of the house, there’s a different fund, and that is called the Federal Citizen Services Fund, or FCSF, [which] is an appropriated fund. So, there’s a whole side of the house that is appropriated to do certain technical solution development.
So, from a business model standpoint, you’re exactly correct. We go out and we have to discuss and engage with our agency partners, identify problem statements and then identify what solutions are going to address those problems.
What about something like Login.gov, which is on the Solutions side. Like for SBA and VA, do you charge them to use Login.gov?
Yes. In those two particular areas—Cloud.gov and Login.gov—they are actually Solutions but are funded through the acquisition service fee. So, it’s not as simple as it may seem on the surface. We do charge the VA; we do charge SBA.
The exception is those pilots programs I talked about earlier. They are tests to make sure that the service is providing what it is that the customer wants.
Your business model requires you to provide services to other agencies in order to survive. How are you keeping this fresh and new? Apple, for instance, holds a big event every year and they roll out all these new things and change the paradigm every year. If you’re not rolling out new services and new programs, what are you doing to stay fresh?
The essence for TTS is for us to become the hub of technical implementation, innovation, acquisition and talent. That is really what we’re attempting to become for this federal IT transformation.
Some things we try to do to maintain currency and to maintain the edge, if you will: Our programs like our Challenge.gov and our 10x programs that actively solicit new ideas to bring them in to government. And, then things like the Impact Summit series—those type of events that are explaining to other agencies what it is that TTS does. We had, I think, over 700 people attend. So, there is definitely some demand for those services.
We got tremendous feedback from folks that were there, both live and then afterwards. We’re really trying to work with the model to keep it fresh, to make sure our service offerings are something that agencies need.
And you even hinted earlier about RPA. We were sensing a need. So, we wound up adding an additional Center of Excellence in order to address that need.
One of the things that I didn’t really address earlier … is about the focus areas. We have six particular focus areas that we have rounded on after surveying internally, the staff that we have, and also surveying externally the needs of our client agencies. Those six are: artificial intelligence, data and analytics, cloud adoption/infrastructure optimization, identity management, customer experience, and accelerators. Think about accelerators as really the 10x and Challenge.gov and things like that to help bring about this change faster than it normally would happen.
I was going through the site the other day, and just looking at the breadth of programs: U.S. Web Design System, Code.gov, Federalist, Login.gov. Particularly on that Solution site, there’s just a lot of programs, some of them large, some of them small. Do each of them have their own dedicated program manager or do individuals have multiple programs in their portfolios? How many of these programs require daily management and which can or have been put on autopilot?
I’ve had individual conversations with each of the program managers in charge of those areas, and every single one of them is being actively managed by someone. I think we have approximately 40 different activities going on and we have an active leader in charge of each of them.
You mentioned U.S. Web Design Standards: It’s not just something that we put out there and it’s there. They’re actively modifying that and continue to keep that relevant. That same exact model would not work for Cloud.gov or Federalist or any of those. They’re actively managed, actively worked on and invested in to keep them current.
Are there plans to eventually retire some of these? How are you assessing and reassessing the number of programs and how you mete out your resources?
Each of the programs that we’re working with today are valued by customers. Otherwise we wouldn’t have them. They’re actively in use and actively developed.
I work with my staff to determine if there is a change to that, if we find that a service we’re providing is not as relevant as it might have been, and then we need to address that. But as of right now, all the services that I have been fortunate enough to be in charge of all seem to be relevant for our customer base.
How do you judge that? Is it conversations with customers? Is it revenue coming in? How do you know that these are valuable?
I think, right now, the level of scrutiny may not be as objective as I would like it to be. We are going to start asking some more objective questions about each of the programs. But, I think right now it’s through conversations with our customers: Do you find the service valuable? Are there modifications in the service that you’re looking for that aren’t there? More qualitative in nature.
I think some objective criteria could be injected into the process.
An April 2020 GAO report noted a previous effort to create a centralized, governmentwide customer experience capability “that will enable agencies to identify their customers, map their interactions (or journeys) with federal programs or services, and leverage digital tools and services to improve their experiences and overall satisfaction,” which would have included TTS, as well as the U.S. Digital Service. That effort appears to have been scrapped by [the Office of Management and Budget] in favor of focusing on the CX CAP goal. “According to OMB, the reform proposal is meant to stand up a central capacity, or office, within GSA to manage customer experience governmentwide; whereas, the CAP goal is intended to support capacity growth and accountability within agencies to develop and manage their own customers’ experience and satisfaction,” GAO said. What is the status of both efforts and how does TTS fit into the broader, governmentwide discussion on CX?
I don’t have a lot of the history of it. I do know that TTS is an active participant in the OMB CX initiatives. I used to run the Centers of Excellence, we have a specific area that focuses on the customer experience in the contact center side of it. I know that the Presidential Innovation Fellows are helping agencies to find services … to analyze and present satisfaction metrics. The Performance.gov website has some information on it.
Bringing this back to the business case discussion: One of the reasons I’ve been told is changes to the CX initiative were really about money, that it just would have been too expensive to have all agencies pay into USDS and TTS to lead their CX improvements. Instead, the new goal is to have the agencies use their own funding and management to lead the efforts, with support from you all. So, what I wanted to bring this all around to was, as we talked about the business model for TTS, how are you competing with industry marketing their services directly to agencies? Does TTS give enough return on investment for agencies to use you versus doing something internally or going to the private sector?
This question may be addressed toward CX, but from my perspective as the former CoE lead, it’s all of my areas, right? How was I competing or partnering with the private industry?
Whether it’s customer experience or cloud adoption or whatever, one of the strengths of TTS and CoE and all of our subgroups is that you have this partnership of feds working with feds to help buy/build technology better.
There are a number of cases that I have seen as the director of the Centers of Excellence where we really came in with a very, very small group of feds, yet brought in and were augmented by a very large group of very competent vendor partners to help drive change. Some of those things have probably been reported hundreds of times about the [Agriculture Department] work that we did there, with shutting down data centers or migrating their loads to the cloud or working through the customer journey maps for farmers. We’re working on that right now with [the Housing and Urban Development Department] as we’re transitioning to implementation stages there.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that we compete with the private sector because I don’t think that’s the case. We definitely need the private sector to do this job well and effectively. TTS as a group is about 317 people. At USDA, I think we had just on that CoE job alone there was about 150 people working that one particular job. Many of them were vendors—most of them were vendors.
I think the way I would look at it is a client agency could tap into TTS to harness that energy and be accentuated and amplified by a vendor group coming in to help to solve those problems. I wouldn’t want to compete with the private sector.
I think that there is high value in bringing the private sector in to help address these concerns. The logical question [becomes], “why don’t they just go direct to the vendor?” Well, I think because bringing TTS—their amount of expertise, the talent, the acquisition [skills] that I talked about earlier—is a value add when you add the agency’s understanding of the problem set, the problem statement; TTS’s understanding of how to buy and build and apply technology; then you bring the vendor partner in. Now, you’re going to be delivering something that is a tremendous value. I think it’s an amplifier to that.
Shifting to the current COVID-19 pandemic: The whole idea of TTS—and GSA in general—is to help all the other agencies get their jobs done. We have got this acute problem right now, how have you all been stepping in?
I have worked in other government agencies as both a fed and a contractor in my past. Largely, I think, in my experience, the teams that you have there are focused on operations and keeping the system going. I don’t think that’s a revelation at all. But when you have something like this pandemic come up, all of your energy is currently focused on continuing to keep the lights on in a very challenging environment. TTS is uniquely positioned to help out there because we’re not part of your daily operations. We can deploy emergency folks to help you. As that situation comes up, we can help out.
There’s a couple of examples I could talk about. One thing I want to talk about is our FedRAMP team. The FedRAMP team had over 100 requests to help reutilize some of the FedRAMP authorizations that have already been authorized. That’s a way to help other government agencies, so they don’t have to go through the authorization process.
[After the interview, GSA spokesperson clarified that, from March to August 2020, “the program received 2,000-plus agency reusability inquiries for FedRAMP authorized cloud products. Several requests were related to products such as business productivity suites, communication and collaboration platforms; but, in general, there was a surge in agency interest across the entire FedRAMP marketplace.”]
Other things that we’ve worked on, too, is our USA.gov team. They were designated by [the Homeland Security Department] as one of the official lanes of communications for the COVID response. They’re helping out with both English and Spanish versions of messages, amplifying key messages and handling, really, an enormous number of calls to their call center.
One other I want to highlight is what our Login.gov team working with the Small Business Administration to handle their multifactor authentication capability for the Payroll Protection Program. It’s a lender gateway used by small- and medium-sized banks to request loan guarantees. They facilitated more than half a trillion dollars of funding, more than 302,000 logins and supporting over 180,000 customers going through the gateway.
[After the interview, GSA spokesperson clarified that the Login.gov team’s work on the Payroll Protection Program is separate from SBA’s ongoing Login.gov pilot. SBA signed an interagency agreement with Login.gov for the PPP and paid TTS for the service.]
TTS teams have offered a lot of advice to their colleagues about teleworking. But what have you all learned about crisis response? What’s something that you didn’t know that you’re learning now?
I think one of the things I learned—and it’s not specifically crisis response—is that TTS functions better together as a unit. There are ways in which the group has gelled together. I’ve seen Search.gov, Login.gov, Cloud.gov, Federalist, CoEs and 18F all working together solve a problem. There’s power in the group working together. I don’t think it’s specific to crisis response, but I think it is specific to TTS.
I think prior to the COVID situation that we’re in, I didn’t see a lot of that cross pollination, those cross interconnects being made. It’s really surprising and it’s definitely something that I was impressed with. I saw the teams coming together to help agencies solve their issues.
That makes sense. TTS is kind of like the DHS of digital service delivery, right? It started off as a bunch of individual programs that then got put together under one umbrella.
It was great to see. And it wasn’t that there was a lot of top down pressure on that. It was, “Oh, we’ve got to really work on this. There’s nowhere I can’t turn. 18F, please help. You guys have folks that can do this.” It was great. It was amazing to watch as the group came together.
I think nothing unifies a group like that more than a crisis or a focal point to really focus the energy on solving something like that.
You’ve led the CoE; you’re on a temporary detail as head of TTS. You’re not going to be picking your successor, but what is some general advice you can give GSA? In your time leading innovation groups, what does it take to be a leader of a transformation program?
As you indicated, I’m acting in this role, right. So, clearly, there will be another.
What I can say is from my time at CoE and my time here, the person needs to have really, I think, two—probably more—but at least these two pieces of information. One is a good command and understanding of the problems and maybe the problem statement that your agency partner, your customer needs. They need to have an ability to understand from the perspective of the person sitting in the seat at those agencies, there is an enormous amount going on. They have to modernize, but they have to keep their enterprises going. It’s not easy. So, the ability to have the empathy or the understanding of what that person is going through is tremendous.
But the other side of it—the inside of the house thing—is you have to really, truly understand the people aspect of it within TTS, within all the subgroups in TTS. People are truly the heart of this organization—of any organization—but this one in particular because they have to be able to work together to solve these problems. They have to be able to be deployed to those agencies and very quickly understand what’s going on and where they’re at, and then formulate an issue, determine how they’re going to accept that problem statement and come up with their plan to help the agency get to where they need to go. But in understanding people and understanding of what and how to get that group together to organize them and have them go and do that work is critical. Absolutely critical.