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New reforms push more IT sharing, innovation

Oct. 29, 2011 - 08:18AM   |  
Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel.
Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel. (Steven VanRoekel via Flickr)

New governmentwide management reforms aim to reduce federal IT spending, beef up the government's IT expertise and better promote adoption of more innovative technologies.

In his first policy address since becoming the federal chief information officer, Steven VanRoekel said IT managers must share existing IT systems and contracts to reduce duplication.

"It is very likely that many things that you want to acquire in the federal government have been acquired before," VanRoekel told a technology industry audience in Palo Alto, Calif.

"We'll share procurement, we'll share technology, we'll share expertise and we'll share systems, both inside agencies and across agencies, to drive greater efficiencies," he said.

VanRoekel said the initiative, called Share First, will reduce costs and speed up IT development and the procurement process, which he said often takes months.

The Office of Management and Budget will look for opportunities to increase the use of shared services as it reviews agencies' 2013 budget submissions, an agency spokeswoman said in an email statement. By the end of the year, OMB will release a Shared Services Strategy that outlines a governmentwide approach for sharing services.

Agencies already share financial management, payroll and other IT systems through various lines of business. But there are a number of duplicative systems.

VanRoekel also proposed a new model for adapting new technologies for government use, which he called "Future First."

"Much as our ‘Cloud First' policy changed the landscape of IT spending, ‘Future First' will jump-start the government's adoption of new technologies and approaches," he said.

"I envision a set of principles like ‘XML First,' ‘Web Services First,' ‘Virtualize First' and other ‘firsts' that will inform how we develop our government's systems."

VanRoekel invited the tech industry to suggest ideas using an email address, on how the government should do this and what principles it should adopt.

"I think everybody would agree that that is the right approach to take," said Giovanni Leusch-Carnaroli, former associate CIO at the Transportation Department, now at Grant Thornton. "However, there needs to be some leadership that removes the barriers for that to occur."

Agencies are generally interested in saving money, but the appropriations process stovepipes budget allocations to various programs and bureaus within departments, Leusch-Carnaroli said. There is no incentive to share because each has a separate budget for IT projects, he added.

He suggested Congress allocate money for specific functions, such as cybersecurity and human resources, as opposed to departments, but he acknowledged the idea is forward-thinking.

VanRoekel said he is working with Congress on ways to provide multiyear funding to agencies as opposed to the current single-year cycle. Former federal CIO Vivek Kundra also tried this, but made little progress.

"We are almost a month into fiscal year 2012 and we have no budget," VanRoekel said. Agencies don't know what their budgets will be and they don't know when they will get them.

There will be pushback from agencies that fear a lack of control if they share technology and systems, and some may feel they have special needs, Leusch-Carnaroli said. The cost of migrating to another agency's system is another concern, he said.

He suggested government create a basic, searchable database where agencies could see what technology, storage space or even unused software licenses are available at other agencies.

"We need to think beyond ‘your agency versus my agency' it's the U.S. government," he said. OMB and agencies need to agree on who provides what services best and use the budget process to get buy-in from other agencies, he said.

The Shared First policy should also be considered when OMB and agencies review their IT investments, Leusch-Carnaroli said. Currently, these so-called TechStat reviews focus on one system and do not consider whether there are duplications across government or interdependencies with other systems.

Norm Laudermilch, chief operating officer for Terremark Federal, said he sees the Shared First initiative as a plus for industry, especially for cloud service providers.

"It's shared infrastructure, shared networking, shared expertise, security staff and monitoring," Laudermilch said. "When dollars are plentiful it's easy to spend, but when you can outsource it to a company and not have upfront capital expenditure cost, that's a huge attraction."

The biggest challenge will be making VanRoekel's Future First policy a reality, said Frank Baitman, former CIO at the Social Security Administration.

Agencies are hamstrung by legacy systems and there are no clear incentives for them to take risks and adopt innovative technologies, Baitman said.

In the private sector, competition drives change because "if you don't innovate, someone else will," he said. Agencies have to be willing to fail in order to succeed, he said.

There also must be a message to industry warning that companies that don't strive to introduce emerging technologies will not win government business, he said. Companies that have benefited from the government's "laggard status" when it comes to adopting new technologies shouldn't be selected.

In developing the new policy, VanRoekel said he wants to prevent IT solutions that favor a specific vendor.

Baitman agreed, adding that government should use open-source software whenever possible.

Improving the government's IT expertise is another priority, VanRoekel said.

In September, the Chief Information Officer Council launched the Technology Fellows Program to attract top IT professionals. About 5,000 people applied, and individuals will be chosen to participate in the two-year program. CIOs can opt to hire the fellows after the program.

When asked what countries he could learn from, VanRoekel mentioned Canada and the United Kingdom.

He said he is following an initiative called Shared Services Canada, that consolidates the government's IT capabilities into a single 8,000-person agency that will run its IT lines of business, such as payroll.

"I'm glad they're doing it so we can watch," VanRoekel joked.

The U.K.'s approach is one he said the U.S. could aspire to promote. The country consolidated its government websites down to two: a portal for business and one for the public.

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