Editor’s Note: The following story is taken from a book-length work authored by a senior Federal IT official currently working in government. This is one part of an extensive, firsthand account of how IT decisions are made, the obstacles standing in the way of real change in government technology management, and what one career Federal IT employee really thinks about the way government does IT.

Because the author is a current government employee and is concerned about the impact this may have on their career, we’ve agreed to publish this series of weekly excerpts under the author’s chosen pseudonym—Demosthenes.

MeriTalk has agreed not to make substantive changes to any of the chapters.

— Dan Verton, Executive Editor


The final word hasn’t been written. You need to think about this now, not the day that you leave the agency. What will be written on your tombstone when you die?

That’s an interesting thing, tombstone management. I know, firsthand, that it is a terrible idea. Tombstone management forces senior leaders to think about all the stuff their predecessor accomplished, and then abandon all of it. That is the stuff that will be written on his or her tombstone. For all the good things he or she did, I will be merely a custodian seeing the mission to its conclusion.

No, in tombstone management you necessarily must make a break with everything your predecessor did and chart a new and different course. This is why I think it is the dumbest thing that has ever been thought up. Think about the impact to the team. You are proposing to abandon all of the stuff that we were doing well, all of the stuff that we did right, and for what?


Check your ego at the metal detector. We don’t have room for it here. The impact of tombstone management on the career staff is painful. We abandoned shit that was working.

So forget about trying to write your own epitaph. Just focus on doing the best job you can do and making sustainable decisions. If you do that, it won’t matter if the person who follows you is one of your disciples or a radical from the other party. Your sustainable decisions will be part of the as-is, and not ripe for new litigation.

But if you must think about the future, here is a Mad Lib that you can complete. It is the letter that you will write to the team on the last day of your tenure. Think about how you want those things to look in the end, and let that guide your leadership. The future hasn’t been written. You will write it every day that you are on the job.




In This Series:

The Federal IT Papers–Part 1

The Federal IT Papers–Part 2

The Federal IT Papers–Part 3

The Federal IT Papers–Part 4

The Federal IT Papers–Part 5

The Federal IT Papers–Part 6

The Federal IT Papers–Part 7

The Federal IT Papers–Part 8

The Federal IT Papers–Part 9

The Federal IT Papers–Part 10

The Federal IT Papers–Part 11

The Federal IT Papers–Part 12

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Demosthenes is a pseudonym for a senior Federal IT official.