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CIOs whack IT budgets

Jan. 20, 2013 - 03:24PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
Thomas A. Bayer, Chief Information Officer for the Securities and Exchange Commission, poses for a portrait in his office at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC on Wednesday, January 16, 2013. (Mike Morones/Staff)
Thomas A. Bayer, Chief Information Officer for the Securities and Exchange Commission, poses for a portrait in his office at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, DC on Wednesday, January 16, 2013. (Mike Morones/Staff) (Mike Morones / Staff)

Congress has yet to decide federal budget levels for the current year and beyond, but information technology executives are already feeling the pinch of deep cuts.

Some agencies have already slashed IT training budgets, projects are being scaled back or delayed, and some are considering buyouts.

The Housing and Urban Development Department, for example, is shutting down duplicative case management systems and renegotiating software contracts, among other measures.

“The budget environment and all indications were that there [were] going to be significant reductions in the money available,” said Kevin Cooke, HUD’s deputy chief information officer.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is delaying some projects, downsizing others and tapping into its fee-based reserve fund to pay for those considered most critical.

“We are making decisions on what programs we are moving forward,” said CIO Thomas Bayer.

Likewise, at the Energy Department, Health and Human Services Department, Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Army and countless other agencies.

One reason to expect big cuts: The White House itself had proposed IT budget cuts for half of the largest federal agencies, including the Defense Department, for this year. Of those, HUD’s IT office was due for the steepest cut, at 20 percent, according to Office of Management and Budget data.

HUD’s Cooke said senior leaders are detailing the specific impacts budget cuts would have on internal operations and citizens who rely on the department’s services.

“We try to put the impact not in technical terms, but in programmatic terms,” Cooke said. For example, how many fewer people would a HUD program be able to serve if the agency didn’t invest in automation, he said.

Meanwhile, the department is finding cost savings where it can. HUD is wringing out cheaper rates on data storage for information that doesn’t need to be accessed often. And it will invite employees to use their own smartphones for work purposes in hopes of saving money on government-issued phones. “It’s literally looking through everything that we’re doing,” Cooke said.

The possibility of across-the-board budget cuts, now slated for March 1 if Congress and the White House don’t strike a deal, could also mean massive furloughs and far deeper cuts governmentwide.

Today, about 280 feds and as many contractors make up HUD’s IT workforce. Cooke said there are ongoing discussions with human resources about potential buyouts, what the target number would be and what changes HUD can afford to make without harming its mission.

But the cuts can only go so far, and the department must invest in its IT staff, he said.

“If we are going to have to do more with less, we’ve got to spend more money on our existing employees,” Cooke said. Systems engineering and integration, project management and contract oversight are among the skills HUD wants to develop among its federal workforce. Employees who had not been as eager to take advantage of job training have had a change of heart, amid concerns over job security. But training dollars are dwindling.

Same at the SEC. Training is being hit, and so are some planned projects, said Bayer, the CIO. Parts of one project to centralize data and make case documents more easily searchable for SEC enforcement staff have been delayed, Bayer said. Deployment of analytic tools and resources, such as those needed to extract and analyze data about trading market abuse, potential fraud in municipal and public pension funds, and insider trading, also will be scaled back for now.

Bayer said SEC’s IT workforce, including 180 federal employees and 515 contractors, has been spared from further cuts for now because of cost-cutting efforts last year, which saved SEC more than $12 million. Of those savings, $2.9 million came from renegotiating several contracts for software and hardware licensing and maintenance.

There is some good that comes from tough times like these, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said in an interview. “I think fiscal pressure produces an outcome that is one where you will see a wave of innovation and a wave of efficiency gains that would not have been formed in time of budget increases,” VanRoekel said. “Budget uncertainty is not anything that is new.”

Staff concerns

The budget climate worries some IT staff, including one Army civilian IT specialist, who asked not to be named.

“You kind of have to take it day by day and not worry about it … until it actually does happen,” she said. A single parent, she said she is trying to conserve and only buy what her family needs.

Michael Del-Colle, a former federal manager who is now an independent consultant to federal contractors, said it is important that IT managers not unnecessarily worry their staffs with too much information. “If I’m a manager and going through different budgetary scenarios, I’m going to be careful how I share that [information]. I am not interested in creating anxiety.”

HUD has held regular sessions for employees to ask the CIO and other senior leaders about the department’s technology plans or other issues. Of late, Cooke said employees are also asking if they’re going to lose support for certain systems, what projects will be impacted, what career-advancing opportunities are available, and if buyouts are possible.

Some senior employees are considering retirement, not because of what’s going on within HUD, but because of changes in their benefits package. “Some are making decisions to retire now versus later.”

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