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Robert Gates, Principal at RiceHadleyGates and former Secretary of Defense, delivers the keynote address at the Federal Innovation Summit 2014.
Robert Gates, Principal at RiceHadleyGates and former Secretary of Defense, delivers the keynote address at the Federal Innovation Summit 2014. (Rob Curtis/Staff / Staff)

Agency leaders need to break down cultural barriers and engage employees in order to succeed in modernizing IT systems, according to former Defense secretary Robert Gates.

The technical solutions for reforming IT systems have been around for a while. It is the culture within agencies that prevents success, he said, speaking at the Federal Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C. July 22.

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“Agency leadership needs to be prepared to challenge conventional thinking. Stop doing what doesn’t work well,” Gates said. He said agency leaders need to know when a project isn’t working and should avoid trying to create programs from scratch. Instead, agencies should partner with the private sector to refine existing programs and technologies.

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Agencies must also work together on possible IT solutions and learn to share resources and IT systems instead of fighting to maintain control of individual agency programs and projects. He said too often agencies cling to networks or projects simply because the agency “owns” it, he said.

“Collaborate more instead of engaging in turf fights and stove pipes, Gates said.

While culture may be the greatest barrier, it is not the only one. The the federal acquisition process also works against modernization. It needs to be streamlined to encourage the adoption of new technology instead of slowing down agency efforts to modernize, he said. By the time agencies determine what they need and go through the contracting process to acquire it, the system or program could be outdated, Gates added.

“A sclerotic federal contracting system is not a good match for the fast-evolving information world,” Gates said.

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