USCIS CIO: Design a User-Centric Digital Transformation Strategy

Mark Schwartz, Chief Information officer of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is applying lean methods to reduce the distance between his internal customers and external citizens to the IT organization. Schwartz is an experienced - 5 years with the Federal Government - and award-winning CIO with a reputation using innovative solutions to derive better outcomes. Prior to leadership IT roles, Schwartz was a CEO of a software company.

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Mark Schwartz - CIO U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is part of the Department of Homeland Security. USCIS processes approximately 7 million application a year - naturalization, green cards, refugee status, asylum, foreign adoption and other related services.

There are several USCIS IT initiatives that are led by Schwartz and his team including. The first is turning all paper based processes into electronic processes. "If you stack up all the paper that we receive each day, it would make a stack that is about 1.8 times the height of the Statue of Liberty and that's our daily incoming paper," said Schwartz. The second initiative is to rethink how the USCIS interacts with the public, whether it's in person or online. The goal is to make the process more user friendly and customer friendly by developing an end-to-end digital process. The third major initiative is centralization of business applications.

"We needed a unique way to both support the business needs behind apps and at the same time to make sure that all of our applications are sustainable, secure, and maintainable," said Schwartz. This requires rapid application development, pipeline platform, small decentralized teams of developers who can work quickly, a decentralized governance process, and a crowd-sourcing approach where IT could harness the talents of everybody at USCIS. One example is to host a hackathon day to identify and deliver small quick win projects.

Thoughtfulness and Innovation

Schwartz believes that innovation is about figuring out what the right experiments are or what the right learning process to solve problems. He warns organizations from falling into a pattern of repeating the same approach until it becomes set as the way of doing things. To be innovative, you have to have the willingness to look at the business problem with a fresh set of eyes, knowing that you will not have all the answers. By doing experiments, you will find more creative and better solutions.

Schwartz says:

I think also in terms of cross-pollination of ideas. It is good to be out all the time, looking at new ideas, seeing what other people are doing, bringing experience from other disciplines - not just IT as idea starters. And generating a nice pipeline of sort of things, things to try, new approaches, new ways to think about things. What I found I need to do is create an environment where experiments are not only encouraged and tolerated, but where you reduce the risk and the cost of doing experiments.

Adopting a Lean Startup Management Philosophy

Schwartz thinks of himself and his management team as servant leaders in the classic serve agile sense. The team is encouraged to be innovative, take calculated and iterative risks as experiments to learn from. As the CIO, Schwartz believes that his job is to clear away all the impediments, and he encourages his middle managers to do the same.

I don't want the innovators, the experimenters, the creative people to have to worry about impediments. I want them to focus on the business problem and finding the solution to it. So I find that I spend a lot of my time doing that, working with let's say oversight bodies on how they should be overseeing progress, instead of getting in the way. Or finding ways to get contracts in place that will support the innovation, or planning ways to hire the right people - whatever it takes. That's the role of management and leadership.

IT Organizations Must Add Business Value

Schwartz advises IT organization leaders to always add business value in everything that they do. He notes that in the private sector, business value often means competitive positioning, revenue generation and cost containment. In the Federal government, mission accomplishment is business value, analogous to many non-profits for example. Other values that IT can provide in government is fairness and procurement processes and fairness in hiring. Schwartz advises IT organizations about lean bureaucracy - setting goals, complying with rules and building forward momentum without compromising quality and speed.

Over-Managing Risk Is Risky

Schwartz is not concerned about consumerization of IT or the need to continuously improving infrastructure and application security, but he does worry about the unnecessary paranoia about risk management that can lead to shortsightedness. "We reduce risk at the cost of increasing all the risks, or we are afraid to take a risk where you pretty much need to if you want to not be overspending," said Schwartz.

We've had some of our projects rated as high risk because we had an aggressive schedule, and there was a high-risk that we would not meet that schedule. But is that bad? There is an easy solution; I could lower the risk of my project by making a more leisurely schedule and saying that we are not going to finish for four years instead of one year. But is that the behavior we want to motivate? Yes it would be lowering risks, but that's not a good approach.

Managing Oversight

Schwartz believes that oversight committees can sometimes lack the experience and deep knowledge as compared to the people who manage and run the programs. He recommends light oversight coverage with purpose of clearing away obstacles.

May be oversight in the government should have more of a servant leadership posture, where the programs themselves know what needs to be done. Oversight is trying to find potential obstacles and clear them away. A lot of the time oversight bodies think of a success for themselves in terms of cancelling feeling projects. Cancelling a failing project is the worst thing that can happen because then you have a business need that is not being met. The project that was going to meet it is being cancelled. With more of a servant leader attitude, the goal of the oversight body would be to figure out how to make the program to succeed. What obstacles would need to be removed, what changes need to be made, and support the program in achieving its objectives rather than, well we are going to show that we are doing our job by cancelling the program ones it becomes unsuccessful.

Schwartz states that the burden needs to be on the oversight process, given the immense power they have to add requirements to ongoing programs. The ultimate question is who is overseeing the oversight body and asking 'are you really doing your job in the most efficient ways?' Schwartz wants to see oversight committees working to ensure best practices are applied to minimize risk and to ensure project success.

A User-Centric Approach To Digital Transformation

Schwartz views digital transformation success is when you can establish a user centric view of service delivery. How can we use digital technologies to provide better services or at least customer oriented services? Schwartz believes an attitude of leanness will reduce cycle times and deliver incremental value add to the public.

You have to think where are the sources of waste in your value chain, in your delivery chain. How can you eliminate waste, and how can you do continuous improvement on your process. In order to do the kind of user centric design, you need to work with end users. You need to understand how they think. You need to get experienced user experience, specialists who are very good at working with the way users behave and figuring out optimal solutions for them. All of these things have to come together in order to deliver good digital services.

You can watch the full interview with Mark Schwartz here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3pm as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.