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Tight funds, mandates challenge CIOs

May. 6, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
Veterans Affairs Chief Information Officer Roger Baker, above, described the so-called electronic service bus as "the heart of the [integrated electronic health record]" for service members and veterans.
Veterans Affairs Chief Information Officer Roger Baker, above, described the so-called electronic service bus as "the heart of the [integrated electronic health record]" for service members and veterans. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)

Tight budgets are forcing many federal chief information officers to consider staffing cuts, reduced contractor support and reduced levels of service, a new survey finds.

In addition, some CIOs are considering "earlier or more frequent contract competitions in hopes of getting better labor rates from contractors," said the latest annual survey of federal CIOs, released last week.

"There is really not much left to work with for cuts; we are operating at bare bones right now," one unnamed CIO was quoted as saying in the survey, which was conducted by TechAmerica, an association representing federal technology contractors, and consulting firm Grant Thornton. They conducted the survey by interviewing 40 CIOs, deputy CIOs, chief technology officers, heads of major IT divisions, and representatives of oversight and congressional organizations.

Most federal CIOs said a 10 percent budget cut would force them to eliminate or lower performance levels of certain IT services. Rather than round-the-clock help-desk support services, for example, feds may find some services reduced to five days a week for 12 hours.

CIOs said requiring their IT staffs and operations to take a 5 percent or 10 percent across-the-board budget cut would be the most feasible but least effective cost-saving method, said George DelPrete, a principal at Grant Thornton and chairman of the CIO survey task force group.

"We want to protect our workforce," Richard Spires, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security, said at a TechAmerica event last week. Spires said much of the department's costs are workforce related, and there is little discretionary funding left for new initiatives.

"So, IT tends to be one of those things that in this kind of budget environment really gets hammered," Spires said.

In interviews and at the TechAmerica event, CIOs across government said they are taking steps to spend less:

CIOs at DHS agreed to cut their IT infrastructure budgets including for enterprise licenses, desktops, servers and computing costs by 10 percent next fiscal year, he said. DHS is aggressively moving a dozen IT services such as email, public websites and web content management to public and private cloud environments to reduce hardware and software costs, but CIOs still will have to manage with fewer dollars.

Since last year, the Commerce Department has consolidated 100 contracts for personal computers into one.

The Veterans Affairs Department has 50 ongoing projects to root out wasteful spending on enterprise licenses, software, desktops, routers and servers. VA CIO Roger Baker said the department is pressing vendors to lower costs on some services and products they provide or risk VA's business. Most contractors have complied with requests to lower costs, Baker said.

"We are in a constrained budget situation, [and] our partners need to share in that," he said. "They've been our partners as our budget grew; they get to be our partners as our budget shrinks."

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, IT contractors are expected to show continuous improvement in services, said CIO Joseph Klimavicz. "If you're going to be a long-term industry partner, we're expecting that continued improvement in terms of reducing costs and improving performance, in all areas."

To balance the contractor-to-federal employee ratio, CIOs said they could transfer some common contracted IT services in-house, but they don't have the funds to compete with the private sector for talent and still must rely on contractors for specialized skills.

Most agencies can't provide their staffs with raises, signing bonuses or performance bonuses, and the negative rhetoric about federal employees has hindered CIOs' ability to hire competitively, Grant Thornton's DelPrete said. Seventy percent said in the survey that pay freezes have lowered morale and hurt their ability to attract and hire IT professionals. Fifty-two percent said they don't have formal succession plans to replace retiring workers and senior managers.

Klimavicz said some of his staff at NOAA have taken advantage of buyouts and early retirement in the past few months.

"The skill sets have to change on the federal side," he said. He plans to transition more of his employees from the role of providing IT services themselves to the role of ensuring that IT services meet users' expectations, whether provided internally or by another agency or vendor.

Cybersecurity remains the top concern for CIOs, followed by controlling costs, IT workforce and hiring, executing IT reform initiatives, and addressing security of mobile technology and developing a mobile strategy.

CIOs said they are struggling to prioritize unfunded mandates and governmentwide initiatives from the Office of Management and Budget.

When asked to rate the administration's 2010 IT reform plan which calls on agencies to consolidate data centers, adopt cloud computing and share IT systems, among other things agencies gave the plan a C-plus or 3.5 out of 5.0 for feasibility, with 1.0 being the least feasible.

They gave their progress so far in following that plan a C, or 3.0 out of 5.0. And in terms of how highly the administration's IT reform plan is valued at their agencies, survey participants gave a combined score of 3.1.

Most CIOs said they support the plan but want to see it improved. For instance, they said agencies' IT environments and capabilities vary, so specific goals and deadlines for each agency should be adjusted accordingly.

Budget cuts have forced IT executives to better prioritize IT projects, use agile IT development methods and increasingly engage contractors in their efforts to do more with less. "CIOs feel that budget cuts are on the way, so they are thinking about where to find savings," according to the survey.

Others are looking to Congress for seed money to help fund innovative projects to improve security and share more services with other agencies.

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