Greg Godbout believes interacting with the federal government online should be as simple as booking your next vacation on Expedia. He is using a University of Virginia master’s degree to make it happen.
Godbout, who in April was appointed the chief technology officer of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will graduate from the McIntire School of Commerce’s Master of Science in Management of Information Technology program this summer.
Prior to joining the EPA, Godbout co-founded the General Services Administration’s 18F innovation lab, an in-house tech studio bringing the agility and innovation of Silicon Valley to the federal government. He developed the idea during his six-month stint as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013 and shepherded it through a very successful launch last year. Now, he hopes to bring the same mentality to the EPA to continue transforming how Americans interact with their government online.
UVA Today caught up with Godbout as he settled into his new role.
Q. As you begin your time at the EPA, what are you hoping to accomplish?
A. Joining the EPA offered me an opportunity to pick my mission while still transforming IT within the federal government. There is great opportunity and tremendous reward in working in mission-driven environments, and I love the EPA’s mission of human and environmental health. I have a 9-year-old daughter and when I think about her future, I want her to know I was looking out for her and did what I could.
Our first major effort will focus on building a digital services unit inside the Office of Environmental Information so we can implement current best practices in software design. One project we are working on is called E-Enterprise, which is about modernizing how government agencies deliver environmental protection. It will be a digital platform integrating EPA services and systems and connecting states, local governments, tribes and other users with the EPA. Overall, I think it will make collaboration more streamlined.
Q. Tell me a bit about your long-term vision. How do you want citizens to interact with the EPA online?
A. I would like for them to have a beautiful experience. I want them to seamlessly interact with the site and easily find the information they need. I want them to contribute back to the EPA’s site. We talk here about 21st-century environmental protection, and that is far more than technology. It gets to the core of the EPA’s mission and will require a customer-service, user-focused mindset. Whether the user is a citizen, a tribal representative or a state official, I want them to leave our site thinking, “Wow, that was great.”
I see a strong future in analytics and data visualizations, which offer an interactive way to open up data from the EPA and other partners. We want everyone to come to one location, easily visualize data and build off of it. Interactivity is key. We don’t just want to disseminate information – we want people to engage with it.
Q. You are a small business owner yourself (of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse) and brought a startup mentality to your work with 18F. Why do you think that mentality is important and feasible for the federal government?
A. For me, the answer lies in change management. Change is hard in most large organizations, not just the government. One great way to manage change is to pilot new programs, build small examples of how things could be done and add value along the way. I am a proponent of the lean startup method, which focuses on that experimentation and iteration for faster product development. It builds on the lean production methods famously applied by Toyota and many others since.
These lean practices work. I knew from using them on a smaller scale, and 18F gave me a chance to test a much larger scale. Most people in government are mission-driven and when we found a method that would deliver results quickly, people got excited. We were working with innovators who were already in the government and making their ideas happen.
Q. How would you rate the federal government’s progress in terms of the online user experience? How do we compare with other developed countries?
A. I have been part of an international working group of representatives from over 20 countries, and we are all dealing with the same problems. Government digital services typically and significantly trail modern standards of how people expect to interact with a website when, say, they buy a vacation. Countries worldwide are running into unhappy citizens when a government system does not meet their level of expectation.
In response, there has been a movement to improve government digital services. It has been an amazing learning experience to interact with many countries and especially with the United Kingdom, which was one of the first out of the gate with a large-scale modernization effort and digital services agency.
There has been a big shift toward user-centered design. In the past, new decisions and systems across all industries were based primarily on stakeholder input. That began changing in the commercial sector around 2003, as companies included users in their processes more extensively. Today, we are advocating that approach in government as a key to change management.
Q. Let’s talk a bit about cybersecurity. How do those concerns balance with the need for agile, accessible platforms?
A. I have never set up a virtual server in the government without encountering a hacking attempt within minutes. Hacking attempts are imminent. You simply cannot build systems without serious consideration of cybersecurity – it’s like oxygen, it’s everywhere.
Many assume speed and agility might compromise security, but we see the opposite. The key is to do agile cybersecurity. Hackers change their methods so fast and so frequently. If you are not adaptive and you cannot rapidly update and respond to threats then, simply by being stale, you are a security risk.
Q. You will graduate from the master’s in IT program soon. How has what you learned impacted your career?
A. I enrolled in the program in April 2014, when I and the 18F team realized we had stumbled upon something. There was going to be a large-scale adoption of our methodologies, not just as pilots, but as enterprise-level changes. I had worked with smaller organizations but I wanted to learn how IT decisions were made in larger organizations and how I could improve those processes. The M.S. in IT program has answered all of my questions and more. Now, at least a third of the material I use when speaking to government audiences comes directly from lessons I learned in U.Va.’s program.