For McGrath, defense is in the details

DOD's first deputy chief management officer, recipient of the 2012 GCN Awards' Defense Executive of the Year award, championed a culture of cost and accountability at DOD.

Elizabeth McGrath has spent most of her 24 years in the Defense Department among the back office and support systems that keep it steaming along but which don’t get the same kind of attention the more glamorous, forward parts of DOD do. But all that is changing.

“With the fiscal and economic problems we now have, and the pressure to really optimize our spend in every area, I think that has put a focus on the back office that it hasn’t had before,” said McGrath, who was sworn in as the DOD’s first deputy chief management officer on July 1, 2010.

In that role, McGrath is responsible for improving the effectiveness of DOD’s business-related enterprise policies, processes and systems. She also serves as the department’s performance improvement officer and oversees writing the DOD Strategic Management Plan.

Gordon England, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense who led business transformation efforts there during the Bush Administration, said McGrath is smart, energetic, down-to-earth and “recognizes the art of the possible in government, and what can get accomplished. Taken together, those are rare qualities.”

It’s been a busy few years for McGrath, who has extensive program management, financial and acquisition experience across the DOD. Before her current job she was deputy director for systems integration at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS).

She’s championed the use of Lean Six Sigma/Continuous Improvement processes throughout the department, and introduced a portfolio management approach for business IT systems that, for the first time, links efforts sparked by the strategic management plan to IT investments.

She was also a prime mover in improving the DOD’s security clearance process to the point where it was removed from the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list, the first time anything has come off that list. McGrath represents “the best in government service,” said John Gilligan, president of the Gilligan Group and former Air Force CIO. “She’s willing to make the tough calls on vitally important but often ‘behind the scenes’ issues.”

McGrath is now putting a lot of her energy into creating a “cost culture” at DOD, one that looks beyond just program budgeting to the total cost of operations for the entire department: what it’s spending on each person, the total cost to execute the supply chain, and how much it takes to run the human resources business.

“Those kinds of things really require a level of granularity that we have in pockets of the DOD, but not necessarily across the enterprise,” she said.

And although she said she believes that people generally want to do the right thing, “but both the carrot and stick do need to be in operation at the same time to really move things forward.”

It will help that in her current position McGrath has approval authority for all IT investments that will cost $1 million or more over a six-year period.

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