EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Making Change Happen Every Day: Q&A With GSA’s David McClure

The U.S. government spends US$80 billion annually on information technology. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is directly involved in nearly 25 percent of federal IT procurement activities through its Schedule 70 acquisition program, including nearly $9 billion directly for information technology investments.

GSA has emerged as a leader in guiding federal investments for information technology, a role that has been enhanced with its responsibilities for implementing the Obama Administration’s “Open Government” initiative. In May 2010, GSA created its Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT), while also retaining an Office of Communications and Marketing.

OCSIT is rapidly becoming a leader in the use of new media, Web 2.0 technologies, and cloud computing, to proactively make government agencies and services more accessible to the public. Through websites such as USA.gov, call centers, publications and other programs, OCSIT facilitates more than 200 million citizen touchpoints a year.

David L. McClure, who had been an associate administrator of GSA since August of 2009, was appointed the first associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

Prior to joining GSA in 2009, McClure most recently served as the managing vice president for Gartner’s government research team. Before Gartner, McClure served as vice president for e-government and technology at the Council for Excellence in Government. Previously, McClure had an 18-year career with the Government Accountability Office.

In this exclusive interview, McClure shared with the E-Commerce Times how he sees GSA’s role as a leading force in advancing the use of information technology in the federal government.

E-Commerce Times: Why did you take this job, knowing full well the challenges of a huge federal constituency, numerous Congressional oversight committees, appropriations uncertainties, and the myriad components of the federal establishment?

David McClure:

First of all, I was on the Obama transition team, and I got to see the inside view as to where the administration was going with some of the technology issues in government. That indicated this was going to be an exciting and different time for the use of technology in government. I knew the president himself, personally, was very much a driver behind innovation and creativity in government, and we have seen that actually in his first 18 months with the whole agenda of openness, transparency and participation in government being linked to some of the new technology areas.

I figured I’ve been down these roads before, and with some of this experience, I could help the new team coming in on navigating some of these choppy waters, like oversight and appropriations. So it was a combination really of new directions and challenges, a spirit of enthusiasm, and almost an entrepreneurial-type attitude that made it a good place for me to be right now.

ECT: What would you say were your top two or three personal goals in taking this job, and how has GSA met those goals thus far?

McClure:

I always viewed GSA as being in the driver’s seat for intergovernmental, cross-agency service delivery. It’s a natural for GSA — it’s always been government-wide in its focus. And certainly, this is a time when technology is being used at the enterprise level to gain efficiencies, and to involve customer interactions that were not really a priority in the past.

So I think GSA is really in a position to accelerate the adoption of technologies and to push agencies into areas where GSA can take a lead in identifying the solutions and help to mitigate the risks. So my goal was to come into government and land in a spot where the focus would be creativity, innovation, pushing the envelope, moving quickly, and trying to make change happen on a daily basis — and that’s kind of how I’ve been running this office.

ECT: What do you mean by operating more at an “enterprise level” than the way things were run before?

McClure:

We have that traditional problem of what we call “silos” or “cylinders” of excellence, and what we need to do is to start looking more broadly at the enterprise level on what problems exist, on what opportunities exist, and where our accomplishments can be. That requires a corporate or enterprise view on what is going on in the organization, whether that’s an entire government department or whether it’s a specific agency.

We are very good in government at looking narrowly and focusing on single programs. But we find it difficult to step back and sort of have that portfolio view, and assess opportunities and areas where we can do away with some investments, and accelerate innovation in some higher-impact areas.

ECT: Rightly or wrongly, government is often criticized for being the last one to adopt innovation. How do you see the opportunities for having federal agencies be on the cutting edge of electronic commerce?

McClure:

Well, this is a new time in government. The administration is pushing agencies to be innovative and creative, and to think outside the box. So a lot of the push behind the open government directive, for example, has been to challenge the agencies to be more transparent and to deliver services to citizens not only in more cost-effective ways but in more meaningful ways. And as a result, we have some very interesting things going on in government. So the attitude, if you will, is opening up the Net and allowing a greater level of input of ideas, and actually asking the people who are the recipients for their views.

It’s not just asking people in a GSA office or department what their ideas are for improving a service, but to seek input from the customers — the citizens. It’s a new way of operating for government to have a continuing dialog with its constituency base. It’s not just an occasional survey or phone call or focus group. It’s an ongoing process, and it becomes just part of the way you do business to build in feedback that will generate improved results in service delivery to the customer.

The Challenges and Prizes program is one example of this, where agencies are asking citizens or individuals to almost operate as entrepreneurs and partners with government. So the agency can say to the public: “Here’s our business problem. Help us solve this.” This kind of opens the funnel for ideas on how government can become more meaningful in the everyday lives of citizens. This is one of the goals of the administration: to show the relevance of government and demonstrating the operational excellence of government, and with that comes higher trust levels.

ECT: Prior to this job at GSA, you worked at Gartner for a time. Were you able to bring back any private sector approaches from Gartner when you returned to government service at GSA?

McClure:

Yes, definitely. At Gartner, I was running the public sector research effort, so I was still connected with government operations within a private-sector setting. So my experience was kind of a blend. Gartner was focusing on business issues and technology issues to get its clients to understand the intersection of the two.

And I think that’s what we brought back to government, using an approach that asks how are we solving real business problems in government, or solving customer service needs, rather than introducing technology because it’s kind of cool or interesting. That leads to taking an approach where we ask ourselves at the end of the day, what have we improved in the cost area, what have we improved from a benefit angle and what have we done to improve the quality of the services we provide.

ECT: Were there any performance metrics you could bring back from Gartner — like the “Magic Quadrant” analysis or ROI — to GSA and government service?

McClure:

Well, we can apply a version of those metrics, but we have to tweak them somewhat for government. In the commercial sector, the focus is on revenues and margins, but in government the focus is on public service. Government has to concern itself with costs and revenues and budget outcomes, but it is not inherently in a profit mode. The primary metric has to be showing value for money from a citizen angle or a public benefit angle.

ECT: Can you give two or three examples of where GSA in particular has facilitated innovation related to information technology?

McClure:

Sure. We’ve made a big push into the mobile applications. We think a lot of services that government provides, and a lot of information that the government makes available, should be accessible on mobile devices. It’s really just the way the world is going. People are interacting more and more on their mobile devices for social needs and increasingly for their consumer needs as well. You actually have a better chance of reaching someone on a mobile device than on a desktop, a laptop or a notebook, because people carry mobile devices around all the time.

The penetration rate of the mobile market is quite high and growing, and there is even greater potential for smartphones, which can interact with the Internet and accept data. So in that space, we’ve got to start building applications and delivering services. We’ve just created 21 applications on USA.gov, for example, where you can get air travel wait times, or product recall notices on food or consumer items, or applications to help you make calculations when you are shopping. We’re looking to put up things that are of practical value.

Another area is in improving the search engine capability. Increasingly, people are interacting with the government through the search mode, rather than visiting individual agency websites. So they will go to USA.gov or Google or Bing to search for government services. We are creating a more robust government search capability that has some technical algorithms that will help focus the search.

So if someone is typing in the word “food,” it will automatically trigger a menu of related references, like “food safety,” as the person is typing and searching. It makes it easier and faster for helping people go where they need to go. So to me, that’s enhancing citizen participation in government, and I think it pays some dividends on technology investments.

ECT: One emerging technology is the cloud. Can you describe how the cloud fits into government and GSA’s role here?

McClure:

The use of the cloud is inevitable. We are moving to cloud solutions in the technology market in general, so government can’t pretend it’s in a market all to itself. You look at the projections from all the research organizations and they all predict a healthy take-up in cloud investments in the next five to 10 years. What we need to do in government is to figure out how to utilize the power of cloud technology and then use it appropriately. It’s not for everything.

GSA needs to play a role in the effective provisioning of cloud services to agencies so they have access to cloud solutions via our procurement schedules and our services. Secondly, GSA needs to step up and think of itself as a viable cloud services provider, so whether its storage or software or services, our role would be to leverage the cloud government-wide. That’s a role for GSA, and that’s one of the advantages of cloud computing, in that it offers enormous opportunities for economies of scale.

If we are able to offer storage space from multiple agencies and do it at tremendous cost savings and then manage that infrastructure for federal agencies, I think that’s a win-win situation for GSA and for our agency partners.

ECT: How do you see the role of GSA in the procurement of information technology? Do you see GSA more directly involved in IT procurement or in acting as a facilitator to federal agencies under a decentralized procurement approach?

McClure:

Well, I think a valid case can be made for GSA to act as a broker in using procurement vehicles for setting up common [IT] services across agencies, such that we gain at least the potential for cost savings through economies of scale. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be improvements in how GSA is running these procurement functions and I know that the commissioner of the FAS (Federal Acquisition Service) is looking at those [procurement] schedules to see how well they operate in generating cost savings. It doesn’t mean that this process should be used for everything.

There are some unique needs — or niche needs or lower volume requirements — where government-wide procurement is inappropriate. But I don’t think we’ll go back to heavy decentralization. If anything, we know the efficiencies that can result with creating a common identification of IT needs — and then obtaining these services from the commercial side by using a high volume of acquisitions as a driver for getting discounts.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Metaverse Marketing Offers New Approach To Utilizing Customer Data

In Neal Stephenson’s popular 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” the author introduced the term metaverse to portray a futuristic world where people interacted in virtual 3D worlds using avatars. While his avatar-laced society is a familiar playing field for virtual game fans, few others but forward-looking marketers envisioned much usefulness in the realities of e-commerce.

That is, until now. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg turned the M-word into a vibrant new name for his now rebranded metaverse company, Meta.

Since the “Snow Crash” novel craze, the metaverse term described multi-user, persistent virtual worlds that incorporate social interaction. The game Second Life, which launched in 2003, was the first metaverse to achieve meaningful user adoption, according to Wendell Lansford, co-founder and CEO of MarTech firm Wyng. Multiplayer online games and platforms, like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnight, may also be considered as variations of a metaverse.

“Today, the term metaverse describes shared environments that bring together aspects of social media, virtual, and augmented reality, multiplayer online games, and cryptocurrencies to create immersive, digital experiences that both reflect and bridge to the physical world,” Lansford told the E-Commerce Times.

New Frontier for E-Marketing

The metaverse is a digital universe where people as avatars live, play, interact, and work. In the virtual community of the game Second Life, many users work full-time jobs creating and selling digital goods.

That concept of bringing shared environments together gives new life to some tired old marketing strategies. It also suggests exactly where Facebook and the marketing industry plan to go. To borrow a “Star Trek” slogan, it’s a place where no advertisers have gone before.

The online shopping world will become an exciting place. Facebook’s name change as a business force may well carve a place out of the metaverse. Suddenly, metaverse has generated a huge buzz over the potential benefits that this 3D shared environment has to offer.

This new metaverse frontier of digital development may well have unparalleled advantages for enterprising technology enthusiasts. The metaverse concept may well be the driving force to take e-commerce marketing to the next level. But many people are questioning how it could be used.

Zero-Party Data

Digital relationships between brands and consumers and the risk/reward strategies of third-party data have shifted immensely in recent years. As marketers begrudgingly shift away from the practice, the rise of the metaverse presents a unique opportunity for brands to start fresh and employ new privacy-first initiatives.

Being that each user in the metaverse is an authorized user, both brands and consumers are empowered to get the value exchange they want. In exchange for certain coupons, digital goods or access to areas, brands can ensure they are collecting data that was shared with explicit consent.

This eliminates guesswork from both sides. If done correctly, it has the chance to change how we look at data forever, noted Lansford.

Lansford’s company Wyng is positioned to help companies and their customers successfully co-exist with effective online interaction strategies. Wyng uses API-powered infrastructure for zero-party data (ZPD).

Zero-party data is all the consent-based, personal context data that customers share to improve their experience with brands. It gives customers transparency and control over their profiles and builds trust. The process involves personalizing experiences in real time across channels.

Discussing Business in the Metaverse

The E-Commerce Times discussed with Lansford how metaverse technology will impact brands and their customers.

E-Commerce Times: How is the metaverse different than what is non-metaverse?

Wendell Lansford: Think of the non-metaverse as today’s internet as exemplified by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and any web or e-commerce site.

Metaverse environments, on the other hand, run in parallel to today’s internet. It works much like multiplayer online games. Compared to today’s internet, emerging metaverse environments will offer richer experiences where the virtual and physical worlds converge, and the experience of interacting with others approximates real life.

Is the metaverse concept strictly aligned with e-commerce — meaning doing business over the internet — or does it have connections to other industries, too?

Lansford: In addition to e-commerce, metaverse technologies will have applications in a range of industries. These include entertainment, gaming, social media, education, fitness, travel, real estate, and marketing and advertising.

For example, one popular application today is watching movies (and chatting) with remote friends in a shared virtual theater.

As another example, in November, a plot of virtual real estate in Decentraland (a popular crypto-powered metaverse environment) sold for $2.43 million. The land, purchased by Metaverse Group, will be developed to facilitate fashion shows and commerce within the exploding digital fashion industry.

Fair value exchange (FVE) is a key element of business in metaverse. How is the importance of FVE instead of not shorting consumers in data exchanges a new concept?

Lansford: In the past, brands have primarily collected data about consumers by purchasing data from data aggregators/brokers (i.e., third-party data) or by tracking consumers’ clicks, searches, and purchases on a brand-owned website or mobile app (i.e., first-party data). These ways of collecting data happen behind the scenes, typically without the consumer having any knowledge of the data being collected.

As a result of privacy regulations and privacy-aware consumers, brands are now investing in zero-party data. This is data that consumers knowingly and intentionally share with a brand in exchange for something of value, like a personalized recommendation, loyalty points, and/or a coupon. Consumers will share their data with a brand they trust when the brand makes it worth their while.

How can brands gather zero-party data in the metaverse?

Lansford: The only way to gather zero-party data is by asking for it. On the web, brands ask for zero-party data via micro experiences like guided shopping quizzes, next-best questions, surveys, polls, sign-up forms, and conversational chatbots.

These same techniques can be adapted to the metaverse, but with richer interfaces. The metaverse also opens new possibilities for asking for zero-party data.

For example, imagine a virtual store with a knowledgeable shopkeeper who is there to help customers by engaging them in conversation. The shopkeeping gets to know customers’ personal needs, preferences, goals, and interests (again, zero-party data). Then, with the customers’ permission, the retailer uses that data to provide a more personalized experience with the brand.

Moreover, NFTs or non-fungible tokens, open up new possibilities for value exchange in the metaverse. They can be redeemed for real goods on a brand’s site or in a physical store.

Closing Thoughts

Metaverse commerce is in its early days, with lots of innovation and improvements still to come, Lansford observed. However, the multiplayer online gaming market offers an analogy for virtual worlds and e-commerce coming together.

“[Last year] for example, nearly 20 million people visited a two-week Gucci exhibit, where they could purchase limited-edition Gucci accessories for their avatars,” he said.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Remote Work Transformation Calls for Prioritizing Employee Tech Choices

Image Credit: Lenovo

The global remote work revolution the pandemic caused has accelerated and reinforced the need for companies to prioritize the employee experience. This necessity includes providing tech equipment and consumer products from select retailers via a “choose your own device” (CYOD) reimbursement program.

That is the view from two top suppliers of computers and other electronic devices. Lenovo-Intel research found that a solid majority (72 percent) of employees feel that their employers need to focus more on listening to workers to get clarity on their tech needs. That response ranks in the top three things companies should do to improve the employee experience. 

The Lenovo and Intel study, “Empowering Employees Through Technology Can Supercharge Returns,” is now one year old. But companies still face the ongoing challenges of outfitting their remote workforce with the technical tools they need to work away from the physical office productively, suggested Stefan Engel, Lenovo’s vice president and general manager of Visuals Business.

TechNewsWorld discussed the implications of remote workers’ technical support needs with Engel, who sits in the catbird’s seat in seeing how employers are responding to the realities of the high-tech survey.

TechNewsWorld: How is the shift in meeting employees’ WFH priorities impacting companies?

Stefan Engel: The remote work revolution has put employees more in control of their work technology devices than ever before. We found that improving the employee experience, starting with the tech they provide to employees, is more important than previously anticipated.

Both IT departments and employees agree that satisfaction with their work technology has a direct impact on improving employee satisfaction.

This shift has certainly propelled monitor design forward to becoming the center of communication, interacting with all kinds of devices, not just PCs and laptops, but also mobile phones and gaming consoles, basically anything that can benefit from a fully-actualized visual experience.

How widespread is the remote working demand?

Engel: I saw a recent Gartner survey that noted about one in 10 companies that planned to reopen their offices in the third quarter of 2021 have now pushed back their reopening date to sometime in the fourth quarter.

According to Lenovo’s own customer surveys, 90 percent of businesses plan to keep a hybrid model in place where at least some of the workforce is remote. Workers have grown accustomed to flexibility over the last 19 months and have shown that productivity can be maintained regardless of location.

That increased productivity brings new levels of screen time both day and night. Modern modular technology has become key to keeping employees satisfied with their tech options by allowing for personalization.

Modular options include ergonomic stands that lift, tilt, pivot, and swivel to let workers customize their home setup to best suit their needs, or monitor webcams designed for hybrid work with features like a smart traffic light showing colleagues or family members when a user is “busy” in a conference call.

Is this WFH movement driving new purchases or just moving equipment to the workers’ locations?

Engel: From the same survey Lenovo conducted with Intel, 84 percent of employers are upgrading devices, software, and services as part of employee engagement initiatives to improve team engagement and satisfaction.

The pandemic placed greater emphasis on employees using an at-home monitor to expand the screen real estate of their laptop, making their set-up more productive for working with data and graphics.

This resulted in a large uptick of PC monitor shipments in 2021 according to IDC and other industry researchers. Monitor technology is evolving rapidly. Employers should think about replacement after approximately three years to keep work productivity at high levels. It is also worth it for talent retention according to several employee satisfaction studies.

What other tech concerns did the survey indicate?

Engel: Half of employees still say they are frustrated with their PC hardware and software experience. It is evident that technologies are instrumental in driving employee productivity and engagement. Part of what is making this work is the adoption of video calling and collaboration software.

remote employee working on notebook

Image Credit: Lenovo


Potential exists to bridge these two groups and improve employee experience and satisfaction by making new up-to-date purchases, refreshing cycles, and remotely integrating hardware and software.

For example, an upgraded external monitor that supports high refresh rates and is connected to your PC can leverage the enhanced color performance of HDR 10 brought to life by the latest Windows 11 OS experience — certainly an improvement to your day in front of a screen.

What impact on data security does the remote workforce pose?

Engel: Data security and the feeling of still having control with employees working primarily outside of an office are top of mind for IT decision-makers when considering digital transformation solutions.

Malicious attacks targeting businesses moving their critical functions to the cloud are on the rise, as are attempts to exploit human vulnerabilities via phishing and ransomware, which have increased 11 percent and six percent respectively in 2021, according to Verizon.

Besides security software, one way employers can protect their remote workers is by encouraging them to use their physical shutter when not on camera as an added protection to user privacy.

A new feature I really love is the presence detection sensor that detects if a human being is in front of the monitor. If not, it goes to sleep mode to ensure privacy from prying eyes as well as potentially reducing your home’s power bill.

What other options are employers providing to remote staff?

Engel: As we near the second year of primarily remote work, employers are encouraging their staff to design their at-home workspace smarter than before; where they can easily switch between their workstation and laptop with a single keyboard and mouse combination for a more intuitive user experience.

We have seen several models used to equip/update the workplace at home around the world, all of which are better than companies just leaving their remote employees high and dry.

Here are a few examples:

  • Full free choice: The company reimburses employees fully, often with a max cap per item;
  • Flat amount reimbursement: This approach often leads to the user choosing a standard monitor that skimps on important features, like natural low blue light, in an effort to save money;
  • Preferred list offered: Companies provide a short list of approved monitors that employees may purchase to be eligible for reimbursement, which is a win-win because it caters to the employee’s needs while ensuring that the company is considering the impacts of a healthy work environment;
  • Delivering equipment: Companies make the selection and ship the monitor to the employee’s home.

What equipment baseline do remote workers need?

Engel: Day-to-day remote collaboration requires tailored technology that can improve video calls and even large online meetings, meet the unique needs of businesses, individuals or classrooms, and keep IT costs manageable.

Our user insights point to advancements in flexible modular tech, including enabled high-definition cameras and better device privacy and manageability. Our users also want monitors that feature high-performance displays, ergonomic capabilities, one-cable docking solution, easier video collaboration, smart software management applications, and built-in natural low blue light technology.

What are the priorities that ITDMs want for strategic IT integration?

Engel: IT decision-makers can better improve employee engagement and business outcomes by realigning investments, focusing on PC devices, and involving employees in technology decisions.

Create employee investment in your company’s digital transformation. Listening to employee feedback can go a long way towards establishing the hybrid security, software, and device framework with which IT decision-makers are tasked.

One thing that is different now is that the responsibility for meeting rooms or collaboration spaces in offices and conference centers moved from the care of facilities management to the IT department due to all the smarter technology and influx of high-tech devices. I predict this will soon become the standard for most offices.

How can OEMs address this remote technology divide?

Engel: OEMs must recognize the new realities employees face with remote work and provide technology that can not only help boost and maintain productivity at home, but also keep their work from home space minimal and organized. Organizations can improve employee experience by providing a choice in flexible with mobile and modular technology that adapts to employees’ working style from no matter where they choose to work.

Any final thoughts on how remote working is changing employer options?

Engel: I was struck by one of the study’s takeaways for IT decision-makers. It advises IT to also prioritize tech investments that focus on stated employee needs, such as building a strong ecosystem of PC devices, data security, and exploring easy-to-use collaboration tools.

In large organizations, it is common to have employee advocates working behind the scenes making sure that the long-term health and well-being of employees is factored into any equipment purchases. But this same level of compromise happens less often at smaller companies, or when people are left to buy equipment on their own as part of a company reimbursement program.

I think it is important for IT decision makers, employees, and managers to consider an issue that is just below the surface of all these connected devices. That is blue light emissions from digital displays.

Companies are starting to ask the right questions on behalf of their employees, but much more education is needed to make eye health part of the broader conversation when considering new equipment purchases.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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