Q+A with Casey Coleman: ‘Government IT Leaders Must be Change Agents’ 

Casey Coleman, Salesforce

Casey Coleman, Salesforce

Casey Coleman is the senior vice president of global government solutions at Salesforce, where she is responsible for enterprise positioning and solution strategies for government customers worldwide.

But before joining Salesforce, Coleman spent 12 years in government. She was the chief information officer at the General Services Administration, where she led modernization efforts like the first agencywide move to cloud-based email. She also directed the creation of the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, the governmentwide cloud security program. 

But it was at Lockheed Martin Coleman began her career, as an engineer in 1987. She’s also held sales, consulting and management positions at technology startups, and executive leadership positions at Unisys and AT&T Government Solutions.

These years of experience in private sector helped develop Coleman’s passion for advanced technologies for government, and her time in both sectors has provided a world of insight into modernization, digital economy trends and service delivery.

In a Q+A with WashingtonExec, Coleman discusses what she learned from each sector that led her to the next, her perspective on the modernization challenges agencies still face, the digital shift to transparency, building public trust with tech and more.

Did your role as GSA CIO prepare you for your current position? What experiences during your time in government are you able to lean on in the private sector?

My time at GSA instilled in me a deep appreciation of the challenges government agencies face and an understanding of how modernization initiatives directly translate to helping government keep pace with 21st-century demands.

We saw a great deal of change during my time as CIO! I helped guide GSA in becoming the first agency to migrate to the cloud — we were in uncharted waters, and I saw firsthand some of the challenges agencies experience when pursuing modernization.

I also oversaw the integration of all GSA infrastructure operations into a single program, consolidating 40 contracts and 15 helpdesks to save the organization over $100 million. I also spearheaded other modernization programs like the GSA headquarters real estate IT transformation and enterprise deployment of mobile devices.

One of the key lessons I learned through all this was the importance of collaboration. Everything in government is accomplished through collaboration, because processes are highly decentralized. Leaders need to build coalitions, form common strategies, and get buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, skills that are absolutely imperative in private industry as well.

These experiences and key lessons inform everything I do now at Salesforce, including guiding my team on how best to support government agencies from both strategy and solution standpoints. Though I’m now in the private sector, I’m constantly putting myself back in the shoes I wore while I was in government to think how we can develop a highly collaborative team environment and best serve our public sector customers.

And prior to GSA, what insights were you able to bring into government from industry?  

I began my career as a software and systems engineer, and later worked at several tech startups in sales, consulting and management positions. This diverse background helped me to be well-rounded professionally, and I developed a real passion for defense, cybersecurity, and ultimately, advanced technologies for the government. The combination of roles gave me insight into all aspects of how government IT solutions are built, sold, delivered and supported by industry, which directly informed how I led IT at GSA.

Additionally, my private sector career, including my time at Lockheed Martin, allowed me to bring a commercial mindset to my government work. I strive to approach my work with a player-coach mentality; to not just be a leader, but a doer — to roll up my sleeves and help get things done efficiently in a short time frame. That sense of urgency, which I developed in the private sector, served me well in my time in government.

Do you feel you bring a different perspective to your leadership position, having spent time in both industry and government? 

Government leaders and their industry counterparts share the same mission objectives, but they have different perspectives and different performance measurements. It can be difficult to really have alignment on both sides of the table. Now that I’ve served in both roles, I feel that I can help with that alignment, see the fuller picture and bring forward better strategies and solutions for our customers.

Moreover, perhaps the key quality I’ve developed over the course of my career, spanning both private and public sectors, was empathy. I’ve developed empathy for our public servants. They have tough jobs, doing important work, without enough resources and certainly not enough appreciation. And I’ve gained an understanding and empathy for the challenges the industry faces, especially when traditional government procurement methods can constrain private sector innovation. I think this empathy helps me be more effective.

From your experience in government, where/why are agencies still struggling to modernize legacy systems and meet citizen expectations? 

It’s important to keep in mind that legacy systems are the backbone of government IT operations and do hard and important work. However, these systems rely on increasingly obsolete technologies, typically have higher fixed costs, and are complex to manage. In some cases, it is actually growing hard to find workers who have the skills to manage and maintain these systems.

In the past, our only real option to upgrade aging systems was “rip and replace.” We all know that is a high-risk, costly endeavor, and in fact leads to failure 80% of the time. We’ve learned that modernization must be prudent and incremental — it should proceed little by little without jeopardizing services.

But newer technologies have made that modernization task far easier, and in some ways, this is actually the easy part. The bigger challenge is how to make that new technology translate to better citizen services. That calls for a shift in mindset, rethinking the art of the possible. Government IT leaders must be change agents. The individuals and teams with the passion to push government forward are the real trailblazers.

Fortunately, we’re already seeing it happen — policies like the 21st Century IDEA Act are helping push government in the right direction.

What does the citizen-centric journey look like?

The citizen-centric journey simply means a consistent and streamlined experience that is organized according around customers and their needs, not around our bureaucratic org structures and processes. We must meet customers where they are, with the tools they already use, mobile-first and always on. Finally, the journey is enhanced by the appropriate use of artificial intelligence, combined with historic data of interactions, to deliver timely service and remove overlap and inefficiencies.

I really believe that customer frustration often stems from lack of transparency rather than a lack of efficiency. It’s not always about speeding up processes, but rather about giving citizens insights into the steps along the processes, so they feel confident that their needs and expectations are being met and not getting lost somewhere in a vast and overwhelming system.

Can you explain this shift in the digital economy toward  a  transparent model based on accountability? Where are we seeing this, and why? 

The pace of technology change has been accelerating, most notably over the past decade or so. We are in a time of unprecedented disruption to our work and personal lives due to technology innovation. This is actually a new Industrial Revolution, and smart, cloud-based mobile technologies are creating new opportunities and new challenges for companies, governments and individuals.

As consumers, we are gravitating to, and doing business with, the companies that provide the most personalized, convenient services — what we want, when we want, mobile-first and always on. We can track when our package ships and when it’s dropped off, and everything in between. This has become the new normal, the new standard of customer service, and it is raising the bar for government services to citizens.

We expect the same transparency, accountability and customer service from government agencies as we experience from leading commercial companies. Just as companies leverage technology to orient services around customers, it is becoming incumbent upon government agencies to do the same for constituents. While government doesn’t have the profit motive that private sector companies do, it has a duty to safeguard public trust, which rests on its ability to fulfill the services it promises efficiently and transparently.

Obviously, it is a far more challenging matter for the government to make this pivot, but we are seeing amazing transformation stories that show it’s possible, when a team has a vision and the right tools!

How do you suggest government agencies build consumer  trust?  How is it done in industry?  What are some of the low-hanging opportunities available for agencies to restore citizen confidence? 

Start with the end in mind and focus on the customer — the constituent or citizen, the person or family or business that is at the heart of your mission.

Technology used to be a back-office function, but today, it’s the foundation for service delivery, touching everything we do. In the private sector, the companies that we know, love and trust all excel at one thing: connecting to their customers and making them feel appreciated. Government is still playing catch-up in this area, largely because of their unique constraints — monolithic, hard-to-update systems, complex regulatory mandates, challenging acquisition procedures and more.

Fortunately, cloud platforms like Salesforce create a whole new way to move fast, at low risk and deliver high-quality customer service. With Salesforce, our customers have a secure and modern engagement platform that can be laid in rapidly, on top of your existing systems, and deliver a world-class service experience. Building consumer trust starts here, on the front lines.

Why should government agencies prioritize public trust? 

On a basic, fundamental level, government’s legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. We count on government to perform vital functions that protect lives, health, economic stability and much more. The strength of government lies in how much trust the public has in government’s ability to deliver on its promise to serve the public. That pact is undermined when trust falters, but it is bolstered when the government fulfills the public trust through delivering on its promises and commitments.

How do you work with government and other private sector companies to help agencies reach this goal? 

With our enormous partner ecosystem and open APIs, Salesforce works with a broad coalition of partners in close step with government agencies to address the challenges they face and deliver trusted solutions. We make all our training freely available online at Trailhead so our customers can be empowered to deliver smart apps fast.

Our platform is super easy to use, with no-code and low-code development options. And we keep our Customer Success Platform updated — three times per year! — so our customers never fall behind or incur technical debt.

We are seeing very interesting sharing models emerging, where departments and agencies can jointly develop and enhance common functions. For instance, one state government build a procurement and contract-writing function on Salesforce. They shared it with a different state, and that second team enhanced it and share it back. Because every Salesforce customer is on the same version of our platform, this sharing model is easy and effective. It is saving governments time and money and creating a greater community of expertise.

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