fedscoop: Patent office CIO aims for culture change amid systems updates
By Whitney Blair Wyckoff
When John Owens II came to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2008, he was met with the news that the agency would soon deploy a new system for searching trademarks.
“Does it provide a new feature or function?” Owens remembered asking a manager at the time.
“No,” the manager replied.
“OK, what does it do?”
“Well, instead of crashing six times a day, it will only crash three.”
Owens “got a bunch of hemming and hawing” when he started demanding answers, he recalled. Frustrated, CIO Owens took the code home and debugged it. He later laid into the contractors who produced the system — and promptly fired them.
“I think the government, at least when I got here at the USPTO, was accepting a lot of garbage,” he said. But he’s been working on a cultural shift that would improve the quality of information technology that the government deploys.
By increasing collaboration, sending out fast updates and bringing in a tech-savvy workforce, Owens hopes to make his agency’s dated IT systems so dependable, so modern that a system failure would be big news.
“If our systems went down … I want to make the front page of the Washington Post,” Owens told FedScoop in an interview last month. “Because then I’d know we’ve done it.”
Improvements to the agency’s IT systems come at a critical time. The patent office has been criticized for its massive 600,000-application backlog. And this fall, recently nominated USPTO chief Michelle Lee touted improvements in information technology as a means of making application processing more efficient.
Already, the department has made some headway. Under Owens, the agency has already released several new systems. Dependability has also improved. Owens said the patent office’s original systems weren’t even configured for 90 percent availability, which meant days of downtime every year. Since then, the patent office has improved availability to about 99.9 percent.
But, he said, progress takes time.