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Thursday, September 21, 2023

GTSC’s FITGov Summit 2023: Best Practices from Current Models to Govern Centers of Excellence

Definitions of governance are numerous and wide-ranging, but convictions about governance centers of excellence are not. They’re at their best when assembling stakeholders and facilitating problem solving.

The fourth panel at the Government Technology and Services Coalition’s FITGov 2023 Summit on May 24 in Tysons, Va., discussed best practices from federal governance centers of excellence (CoE). Although center specifics vary across the government, the panel was unanimous in its view that their excellence comes from convening and facilitating collaboration to solve difficult problems.

Chuck Wolverton – moderator, BDO Partner, and FITGov Board member – opened discussion by asking panel members for a definition of centers of excellence. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Senior Advisor to the Assistant Commissioner Ajay Phogat said he saw centers as “seed organizations where you bring knowledge and practitioners together for others to learn from, based on standards, policies, and procedures.”

ServiceNow Federal Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Alboum observed that a “CoE can look at all the ways the organization can use a tool to solve a problem.”

“It can create parity between contractors with deep expertise and government organizations with less,” he said.

Brooke Dickson-Knowles, director of privacy management and compliance at the U.S. Department of Energy’s privacy program, noted that CoEs “get the right people at the table and can help cultivate a wholistic approach” to a problem or challenge. Director of Enterprise Information Technology in the Acquisition Division at TSA C.J. DeBernard thought CoEs form “primarily around technologies and toolsets to establish governance models for their safe use.”

Wolverton asked about the reasons CoEs succeed, and best practices for standing one up. Dickson-Knowles replied that not all agencies enjoy a centralized approach. “A huge part of keynote speaker Ann Dunkin’s job is to convince people to unite, to agree even to disagree,” she said of the Energy Department chief information officer who kicked off the FITGov Summit. “And CoEs can legitimize those conversations.” Dickson-Knowles highlighted the efficiency CoEs can bring to collaboration by finding repeatable processes and solutions that benefit the agency.

“Buying occurs in pockets and a CoE can advise on best approaches, the best architecture, the best ways to segment data, etc.,” Alboum said, adding that CoEs can be located in components, not just at the department level, and that they “often comes into existence after you needed them.”

“Organizations should stand them up quickly when they see technology use emerging,” he advised.

Phogat added that CoEs can “enhance technology solutions applications to tackle a particular problem.”

“They can get people on the same page and, if you don’t have that, you won’t solve your problem,” he said.

DeBernard said that CoEs succeed because “the standardization they bring to activities like application development allow organizations to be efficient.” He added that it’s important to “go in with the right expectations,” and noted that TSA’s CoE was created before the first contract was awarded.

Wolverton then asked how CoEs could promote best practices and their benefits. Dickson-Knowles advised CoEs to be clear on what they’re trying to accomplish and establish measures to report return on investment. “The benefits of performance metrics are a selling point,” she added. Alboum emphasized the importance of having a baseline to demonstrate progress and validate the value of the CoE. DeBernard added that their CoE “tremendously reduced time from idea-to-production.” Phogat observed that CoEs can be seen as “cost centers taking from programs,” and recommended using performance dashboards to demonstrate their value.

A member of the audience asked about a CoE’s command-and-control role. DeBernard said he’s never seen CoEs he knew as command and control, that they were much more facilitative. Alboum added that “the mission rules, so command and control won’t work – you have to figure out how the CoE aligns with and supports the mission.” Dickson-Knowles advised that “too many governance bodies can kill governance,” and that what’s important is “who’s at the table, who needs to be part of the conversation?”

All panelists agreed that the purpose of the CoE should determine its composition, including having industry partners on them when appropriate. “If a solution is specific to a vendor, they’ll be involved in the CoE,” Phogat said. “If it’s about increasing morale, vendors won’t be involved. Composition depends on ends.”

DeBernard noted that he likes “a mix of government and industry,” and that “government sets vision and industry helps get there.” Dickson-Knowles pointed out the value of “industry bringing other experience from other departments.” Alboum commented that “ideally the CoE has more insight than just about technology.” Politics, funding, resources, and more are involved, and “it’s not always a straight [technical] line from problem to solution.”

To close the panel session, Alboum said that he “loved having a whole conversation on governance – on demand management and defining value and staying focused on it.” Phogat said he thought CoEs could add to governance’s “accountability, transparency, integrity, and compliance objectives.” Dickson-Knowles observed that “compliance is dirtier work than governance,” and that governance CoEs should “bring people to the table, bring diversity to the table, and market and educate because everyone talks their own language.” DeBernard cautioned against over-governing. “Facilitate. Guide. Don’t bog down. Don’t put control in place for something that happened once. Make governance a forethought and not an afterthought.”

IT and innovation governance are huge areas of government policy and practice. And while it’s appropriate for governance to focus on performance, participation, controls, decision making, accountability, and more, this FITGov Summit panel agreed that governance centers of excellence are most beneficial when convening stakeholders to solve tough organizational problems together, including non-governmental experts.

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Lou Kerestesy
Lou Kerestesy has spent 40 years helping people getting on the same page to meet their mission. Lou began his career working for local government in Portage County, Ohio, and then USEPA in Washington, DC. He’s owned a technology company, been an exec in a management consulting firm and energy management company, and been an independent consultant to government and industry. In various roles Lou has led strategic planning, program evaluation, change management, continuous improvement, corporate culture, designed and delivered services, managed corporate finances, and wrote (many) proposals. Today, Lou coaches leaders and teams in collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution techniques to get on the same page, quickly. Lou has a liberal arts undergraduate degree from Kent State University, and an MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.

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