Step one in Federal agency digital transformation has little to do with ones and zeros – and everything to do with hashing out a coherent vision of functional improvements and goals that an agency wants to achieve over the longer term.

That was the top-line message from Jill Marlowe, Digital Transformation Officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who emphasized the importance of her agency’s initial approaches to digital transformation at a Jan. 18 online event organized by ATARC.

An agency’s top-line vision, she said, “is the topic that has to precede any events or any true discussion about digital transformation, because if you do not know what change you’re trying to bring about, then your digital strategy is more likely to be more of a digitization than a true digital transformation strategy.”

Marlowe, who co-leads the NASA digital transformation effort with agency Chief Data Officer Ron Thompson, said the project is about one year old and began with meetings with senior agency leaders “to get their insights on how NASA needed to change, what was keeping them up at night in terms of where we needed to pivot.”

Emerging from those talks were a range of macro issues, including the opportunity to transition space launch tasks to private-sector operators. “NASA needs to turn its attention to the next set of challenges – things like our goals for the moon and Mars when it comes to human spaceflight,” she said.

Other items on that macro-issue list are the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, but also “simultaneously working with global science teams to understand climate change using new approaches” with satellites and “merging of datasets across multiple kinds of satellite missions.” On the aviation front, some of the larger issues are advances in electric propulsion and autonomous vehicles that are “requiring NASA to work with new technology providers as well as traditional industry alongside our certification agencies.”

“A lot of change in the air for NASA, no question that we have some things that we need to pivot on,” Marlowe said.

Out of that discussion came agency leadership themes of taking on increasingly bold and complex missions, performing them more quickly and more affordably, partnering more extensively with other organizations, and becoming more transparent and inclusive by “inviting more people to participate on the NASA journey.”

The result from that effort is the agency’s top-level digital transformational goals and objectives, which Marlowe said include improving complex decision making, making it easier for other organizations to partner with NASA, and transforming workforce experience.

On the workforce front, she talked about the need to enhance employee engagement, “meaning how connected they feel to our mission,” make available new digital skillsets, maximize productivity but cutting down on routine tasks, and increasing workplace “agility” by making it easier to operate a hybrid workplace environment.

“You may have noticed that these goals and objectives are non-digital, and that is quite intentional,” Marlowe said. “Again, we are not doing digital for digital’s sake. We’re doing digital transformation to drive the change at NASA, and those top-line goals outline what that change needs to look like.”

She said the success of the agency’s digital transformation efforts will be measured against two key factors – achieving that list of top-level goals, along with gauging the agency’s “digital maturity, which is really a measure of our ability to do those things.”

“Using these two dimensions to measure our progress, we’ll make sure that we stay true to our digital transformation vision to make sure that what we are doing is truly digital transformation – meaning we’re harnessing the power of digital advances to transform NASA and not just digital,” Marlowe said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.