PSRW: Q&A with Dr. David A. Bray
In recognition of Public Service Recognition Week, May 3-9, 2015 Management Concepts spoke with a few of the Federal government’s most dedicated public servants. Here’s our Q&A with Dr. David A. Bray,* Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) who also tweets as @fcc_cio.
MC: How long have you been in Federal Service and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
David: While my official title is Chief Information Officer for the Federal Communications Commission, I’d describe my role as 80 percent “digital diplomat” encouraging collaborations across Bureaus and with other stakeholders across both the public and private sectors. The other 20 percent of my role includes championing the team and being their human flak jacket so that they can experiment, take risks, and help transform an agency — that originally was about 15-or-so years behind the times when I arrived 20 months ago — to one that leads the way for public service IT going forward.
I parachuted into the role of a non-partisan Senior Executive back in August 2013. Prior to my arrival there had been nine CIOs in about eight years, a sign that the Commission and the IT team had been through a lot of turnover. I sensed the need to listen and learn the different narratives surrounding the missions of the 18 different Bureaus and Offices of the FCC, build trust, and work to identify what we could do to make progress together. We’re now at a point where we’ve demonstrated the Team dramatically can transform from the “old way” of doing IT to a “new way” that includes moving all of our IT servers at headquarters to a managed service provider and ultimately, to the cloud. I believe the FCC should be leading the way with its IT, and it’s rewarding to be able assemble a team that is excited about what we need to do together.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?
David: I find joy in leading a team to tackle mission-focused projects that are near impossible, but not completely impossible, involving a mixture of both humans and technology. That is what gets me out of bed every morning and gets me pumped. In particular, I enjoy most when someone tells me that something is near impossible or “has never been done before” and then I get to tackle it and see if I can do it. I love being the underdog because you get to challenge the status quo.
MC: What is one of your biggest achievements?
David: In late 2000, I signed up for a little-known program called the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I was scheduled brief the FBI and CIA on September 11, 2001 at 9am on what we would do tech-wise if an event happened. In response to 9/11, we all worked non-stop, with only about four hours sleep a day, then repeat. We ‘stood down’ on October 1 and I briefed the FBI and CIA on October 3. The first case of anthrax occurred less than 24 hours later. We were busy for several months at the CDC after that. Later we responded to West Nile Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, monkeypox, and several other outbreak events.
Later, my role in the response to 9/11 and the anthrax events of 2001 came full circle. From 2005-2008, pursued a PhD at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, focused on how to improve the response of public and private sector organizations to disruptive events, followed by two post-doctoral associateships at Harvard and MIT. Then in early 2009 I volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan as a civilian to help U.S. and NATO efforts “think differently” about the challenges there. In hindsight, about 40 percent of the recommendations I submitted eventually were adopted and put into practice.
This September, it will be 14 years after the tragic events of 2001, and I still think back to the response to 9/11 from time to time. I serve not only to push the envelope and do the “near impossible” involving humans and technology – I also serve because public service is about being there when really bad days occur and you need to help make them better fast.
MC: Finally, what advice would you share on making public service a career and not a pit stop?
David: Public service is about understanding the different perspectives of multiple stakeholders. There is a definite joy in incorporating different views and navigating new solutions. One of the things I’ve tried to do wherever possible is spend as much time listening and taking in people’s perspectives; seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. At FCC, we’re fortunate to have a mix of people who have been here for a quite some time, the average time an employee’s been at the FCC is 15 1/2 years, in addition to several new people with fresh ideas and insights who have signed up within the last year. People are invested at FCC, we literally have people who have been here for 30, 40, almost 50 years. They have seen the FCC evolve over time. They’ve put a lot of hard work and energy into the IT servers that are here.
Whenever I start a new role in public service as a leader, one question I ask each employee is “What brings you joy?” because that question demonstrates what motivates them, where they find passion, and where their skills might be. All of the employees here at FCC signed up for public service for a reason. By asking about what brings each of them joy, I can find a way to align that energy to the mission ahead of us: ensuring that the FCC has IT for the opportunities of the next decade ahead.
My advice: Seek to understand what brings people joy at work – that will provide motivation even through the hardest of challenges and days. Encourage positive “change agents,” including yourself.
*Answers reflect David’s own personal views and do not reflect those in his official capacity.