The White House team that ensures federal agencies build better technology and defend networks from hackers is plagued by cratering morale — jeopardizing efforts to modernize the government and protect sensitive data from spies and cybercriminals.
Few Americans may have heard of the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer, but the unit inside the Office of Management and Budget coordinates tech improvements across the government, helping agencies boost cybersecurity and manage technology and cybersecurity budgets that totaled $105 billion in the past fiscal year.
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But many OFCIO employees are overwhelmed by unclear and changing priorities, while others are simply checked out or feeling increasingly marginalized, according to an internal February staff survey that POLITICO obtained, along with data from an annual governmentwide report and interviews with a current OMB employee, five former OFCIO employees and three former senior federal officials familiar with the office.
The unit is grappling with “high turnover,” “a lot of infighting,” a “crushing workload” and “inaction from leadership,” said the current employee, who — like others interviewed for this story — requested anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.
“Things do slip through the cracks,” the OMB employee said. OFCIO’s guidance “impacts the long-term implementation strategy out in the agencies,” and if that’s lacking, there will be “a debilitating effect on overall cybersecurity in the long run,” the person said, adding that there was “real concern at the staff level that if this continues, something bad will happen and we won’t be ready for it.”
This employee is hardly a lone voice of discontent. Only 19 percent of OFCIO’s 30 employees expressed satisfaction with their workplace in February, down from 50 percent in October, one month before a reorganization that staff said “failed to address underlying problems,” according to the survey summary obtained by POLITICO.
By comparison, in a governmentwide 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, no agency received a combined “satisfied” and “very satisfied” rating below 57.7 percent. The average for all agencies was 68.3 percent.
While the nature of the job — protecting federal computer networks from hackers — means that OFCIO can be a high-stress environment, people familiar with the office say the situation has become untenable.
“This organization looks like it’s in free fall,” said a former senior federal IT official who worked closely with the office.
OMB declined to make Federal CIO Suzette Kent available for an interview.
In a statement, OMB deputy director of communications Jacob Wood said recent changes at OFCIO “have not affected the team’s ability to produce results” and that the office has been “transparent and accessible with federal agencies, industry leaders, as wells as stakeholders.” He declined to respond to nearly a dozen specific concerns about the current situation.
Federal Chief Information Security Officer Grant Schneider, who reports to Kent, dismissed the reports of debilitating morale issues. “I don’t necessarily agree with it,” he said after a national security conference this week.
“There has been some confusion” in the office, he said, but the way to fix it is to get the “relatively small team” together and “focus on the important work and the opportunities that we have in front of us.”
“I think we’ve got an exciting mission,” Schneider added. “I think it’s a great place to work.”
But POLITICO’s reporting revealed just the opposite consensus, based on interviews and the survey.
In particular, a November reorganization appeared to cause significant confusion and discontent among employees. It replaced a structure built around three core units — agency oversight, cybersecurity and policy development — with one centered on “workstreams” for activities such as cybersecurity risk and data strategy.
But the reorganization was “built on the fly” and poorly explained, said a former staffer. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said it was unclear how the reorganization improved office communication.
Adding to these woes is significant frustration with OFCIO’s senior leaders, especially Kent, a former Ernst & Young consultant who took over the office in March 2018 after the team went more than a year without a leader.
Kent, who lacks a cybersecurity or IT background, has fostered “a closed-door culture,” the current OMB employee said.
“You are not allowed to email Suzette directly. You are not allowed to engage senior leadership directly. So, it’s very hard to move things up,” this person said. Employees are told not even to walk by Kent’s office and knock on her door to talk. “You can say hi to her, but that’s the extent of it.”
More than 80 percent of survey respondents said senior leaders didn’t regularly share information about their mission and failed to establish a clear direction for the office. Employees overwhelmingly said senior leaders didn’t effectively communicate priorities or inspire “confidence and enthusiasm.”
The staffer contrasted the current situation to the environment under Tony Scott, the Obama administration’s final federal CIO. “You could stop by, you could interact with him,” said the staffer. “He would, on a weekly basis, take people to get froyo in the Navy Mess Hall. That’s night [and day] compared to what Suzette does.”
Distance between OMB senior executives and career employees has always existed, said a former senior federal cyber official, but “the more successful officials” were able to “bridge that divide.”
With a staff of only 30 people, OFCIO cannot formulate every policy, complete every project, oversee every agency IT program and help fix every security issue in the federal government. Certain tasks must be put on the back burner; other tasks need more or fewer resources. But Kent hasn’t made these priorities clear, according to the people interviewed by POLITICO, who added that because so few employees can talk to her, the rest are left wondering how to triage their work.
One former senior OMB IT official, who speaks regularly with current OFCIO employees, reported “a sense in the staff that today one thing’s a priority and then the wind blows a different way and the next day something else is a priority.”
The uncertainty is having real consequences, said the former senior federal IT official. “When folks keep on hearing that everything’s the No. 1 priority, nothing gets done.”
The poor communication inside OFCIO has led to some surprising indignities.
“You have to look in the news to find out someone’s been appointed,” said the current OMB staffer. They and another source said OFCIO employees learned about Schneider’s appointment through a Nextgov article.
The same is true of policy changes, according to sources and survey data. Some policies have reached OFCIO through their OMB budget colleagues.
“I’ve heard from more than one person that they might get a call the night before or the morning of some major announcement and they’re asked to support it,” said the former senior OMB IT official, “and it comes as a total surprise to them.”
“It’s frustrating to be marginalized or to be surprised constantly by things that are going on around you,” this person said, “and in some cases things that you’re supposed to be directly responsible for.”
In the survey, 69 percent of employees said they lacked “the opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect my work.”
The turmoil follows more than a year of efforts to make improvements. OMB hired a consulting firm to study the office, according to two people. OFCIO also created a Staff Advisory Committee, which produced the February survey and plans to do others every few months.
“There’s been so much effort put into this,” said the current employee. “And this is the end result. It’s bewildering to say the least.”
The February survey, which includes data from 16 of OFCIO’s 30 employees, mirrors data gathered for the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. OFCIO employees consistently reported the most negative answers of any OMB unit in response to statements such as “I know what is expected of me on the job” and “My agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.”
Beyond OMB, other agencies also reported significantly more positive answers.
A few former OFCIO employees downplayed complaints. “Some folks are going to be disgruntled no matter where they are,” said one. “It’s part of the bumps that come along with any transition to something else.”
But others said the latest problems are particularly acute. The 19-percent satisfaction level in the February survey “is extraordinarily low,” said one former staffer.
Given the current woes, it’s unclear whether OFCIO will be able to recruit the best IT and cyber experts, several people told POLITICO.
“Either you don’t fill [open spots] and the work just gets spread around to fewer people … or you end up recruiting people who don’t have the right skill sets for those positions,” said the former senior federal cyber official. “That harms the effort to modernize federal IT systems and to do it in an effective and a secure way.”
The survey summary said that “[w]ithout a substantial improvement in morale, these responses appear to predict significant challenges with retention of current staff and recruitment of new talent.”
OFCIO is “losing people every month,” the current OMB employee said. Kelly Morrison, who leads the “business management” workstream that oversees agencies’ IT capital planning and data reporting, is leaving at the end of April, according to the employee. (Morrison declined to comment.)
“People will always want to come and get the experience,” this person said. “But it will take [OFCIO] longer to recruit and hire folks.”
A former staffer predicted that Kent, a veteran of corporate transformations, would “address these issues head-on.”
Until that happens, the current employee said, “this is going to either get even worse or stay dysfunctional like it is right now.”