The Biggest Challenge

By Robert Otto  |  Posted 05-04-2009

Obama's Triad Takes on Government IT

When I was asked to comment on the prospects for the federal government's new IT leaders- what I'm calling the "Federal Triad" - a sports analogy immediately came to mind.  Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and Jeffrey Zients - the new CIO, CTO and CPO respectively - are what I call 'franchise players.' Each is at the top of their game and has the drive and intelligence to enact significant and enduring change.

One would expect that the three together would create a dynasty with the ability to transform the playing field. This is my expectation, as I believe that the team assembled by the Obama Administration has the right ideas, attitude and backing to streamline, improve and transform government operations over the next several years. 

Already, their plates are quite full as a number of initiatives have been proposed for this new Federal Triad, including:

•    Making data and information more readily available;

•    Expanding adoption of the latest collaboration tools, including Wikis, blogs, mashups, Facebook and Twitter;

•    Measuring and monitoring agency performance more closely and publicly;

•    Making government more efficient; and

•    Standardizing our data and in particular, healthcare data.
These are the concerns that any forward-looking agenda should and must address. However, their agenda cannot just look to the future. Instead, the stark reality is this: running the existing business, which many refer to as legacy, consumes 60 to 85 percent of available resources. In other words, the vast majority of government IT resources are already committed to the care and feeding of existing programs and systems, leaving little room for innovation. The $64,000 question for government IT managers is how these concerns will be addressed in the race towards the next big thing.   

While most would prefer to skate over these issues since there are no easy answers, the reality is that they present a significant obstacle to the Obama Administration's openness, transparency and accountability agenda. Career government IT leaders, when tasked with pursuing "'innovation," will need to ask themselves two important questions:

•    How do I turn off the legacy systems/infrastructure without a viable replacement?

•    Where will I find the resources and skills to do this new stuff at the same time?

And these are the right questions for them to be asking. Part of the answer will continue to be "do more with less." More specifically, they will need to be ruthless in their drive to consolidate, standardize and simplify IT operations and ever vigilant to new IT costs. But the Federal Triad will need to exercise leadership in this area as well and I believe that they will. 

The Biggest Challenge

In terms of government IT, the biggest challenge facing the Federal Triad is that federal CIOs are torn between using their limited resources - dollars, staff, support, infrastructure, training, political capital - to support existing commitments or initiate new projects. It's hard to justify pursuing a new innovation agenda, considering the extent of the hurdles that the average CIO needs to overcome: 

•    Aging infrastructure that is often unique to each agency;

•    Support costs that rise faster than reductions can offset them;

•    Legacy applications and program with their own sustaining Congressional constituency;

•    Relatively limited control over IT within their agency, including priorities, standards and platforms;

•    A stretched workforce that is rapidly approaching retirement with potential replacements lacking critical skills and institutional knowledge;

•    A contractor community that is often more wedded to maintaining current revenue at the expense of solving the problem;

•    Procurement bottlenecks that maintain the status quo and limit access to more innovative suppliers;

•    An inability to easily share data and information across government due to a lack of common standards;

•    Multiple networks and disparate communications systems that serve to isolate individual agencies; 

•    Lack of a single government network that would reach all employees and would connect seamlessly to every government agency;

•    Hundreds of government website lacking an integrated search function or common architecture; and

•    Agencies pursuing a 'roll-your-own' strategy, where each takes a unique approach to solving a common problem.

In reality, federal CIOs were often being asked to support government-wide priorities with insufficient resources or commitment for doing so. As a result, they remain solely focused on their agency's objectives - and specifically, existing IT commitments - as this was their powerbase that funds and supports their operations. 

So, what's different this time? Will federal CIOs support the Federal Triad? My take is, yes and no. 

By nature, they're dedicated to public service and they're committed to doing the right thing.  However, they also need to rationalize their existing priorities and commitments and will be challenged to give these initiatives the support and attention that they deserve. The net result is that support in the field may be limited and success fleeting.

This raises important questions for how the Federal Triad should respond. First, I believe that they should continue with the five priorities that I outlined earlier, as they're fundamental to the more citizen-centric government that the Obama Administration has promised. 

That said, they also have to put forth a multi-year plan for how government IT should operate. At the vision level, this needs to be a "man on the moon" statement, due to the significant challenges government IT faces. Then there needs to be a roadmap of how to get there. This can't be viewed as a one-time initiative--a strong government-wide vision backed by consistent managerial discipline is what has been too often missing at the federal level. 

Fundamental Changes

In reality, this multi-year government technology plan (GTP) should build upon the points that they're already championing while addressing many of the concerns I've highlighted. The objective is to get ALL of government IT following the same marching orders so that we can capitalize on economies of scale and the benefits of consolidation while overcoming the constraints of interoperability once and for all.

Within the GTP, I'd advise them to address the following priorities:

1.    As part of a performance-oriented culture, work with agency secretaries to ensure that a significant percentage - 50 percent - of the CIO's bonus is directly related to success in implementing the GTP.

2.    Standardize the role of CIO throughout government with more consistent roles, responsibilities, operational structures and performance measurements.

3.    Establish as an overriding meta-model for all agencies an overall business, technology, service, data and information architecture for government. 

4.    Ensure greater consistency by defining a minimal set of common standards and governance requirements for mandatory use across all government agencies, including:

a.    Security, identity and access controls
b.    Data models and presentations
c.    Application services
d.    Datacenter operations and hosting
e.    Network management
f.    System interfaces
g.    Telework policies
h.    Tools
i.    Project management methodologies

5.    Establish a government-wide collaboration and information-sharing network to facilitate inter-agency cooperation and ad hoc workgroups.

6.    Create a shared government cloud to replace the vast majority of federal, state and local data centers.

7.    Extend the Bush-era line-of-business initiatives to support additional shared service centers supporting common requirements, such as HR, finance, procurement, real estate and facilities management, and help desks.

8.    Mandate a single government-wide standard for data uses throughout government and support efforts, such as master data management, to create a 'single citizen view' across all agencies.

9.    Consolidate research & development investments within a single, government-wide organization and require vendors to work through it to validate new technologies for government adoption.

10.    Work with Congress to support procurement reform so that the government can capitalize on more innovative vendors and more agile business models.

The strategic benefits here are twofold.  Rather that continuing to reinvent the wheel by duplicating common solutions, CIOs can focus their innovation and development resources on those areas of most strategic importance to their agency. And with a clear, long-term roadmap in place, they can develop, build and acquire new systems, infrastructure and policies that work to achieve these government-wide objectives. 

While this may seem elementary, this level of clarity and specificity is needed to ensure that each agency is working off the same game plan and has no excuses for deviation from plan. While this won't solve every problem--nor will it occur overnight--it will make it possible over a 10- to 12-year period to leave nearly all of our legacy constraints behind as agencies embrace a more standardized, centralized and simplified approach to IT.

Robert Otto is executive vice president for advisory services with Agilex Technologies. Previously, he worked for 38 years in federal IT management, most recently as CIO and CTO of the United States Postal Service.