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Interior pushes ahead with IT reform despite budget cuts

Dec. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services
Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services (Staff)

The Interior Department aims to shed redundant IT programs and invest more in innovative and forward-looking IT programs. It kick-started a multibillion dollar IT modernization effort in 2011 that is expected to save the agency $100 million a year from 2016 to 2020.

And like many agencies, Interior faces budget cuts, budget uncertainty and cybersecurity threats, among other challenges.

Andrew Jackson, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, spoke to Federal Times about the challenges facing the agency and how Interior intends to invest in its IT future. Following are edited excerpts:

How important is cloud computing to the Interior Department's modernization efforts and its future?

I would have to say that cloud computing is essential for our plans to the future. The reality is that right now we have hundreds of data centers in the department and these data centers are essential today to how we get the job done. They house mission applications, back office systems, a lot of the data we use to make good decisions to affect policy and communicate with the public. The amount of data centers we have and the age of our infrastructure and the fact that a lot of our spending is spent on keeping things going instead of being spent on new ideas and innovations has forced us to take a radical look at how we get the job done and how we get our needs met.

One of the conclusions we reached several years ago is that we needed to make a bold move into cloud computing in order to really modernize our infrastructure. We see it as a way to leapfrog where we are now, to drive a lot of data center consolidation, and to replace a lot of our aging infrastructure in a way that not only allows us to capture what current technology has to offer, but to do it in a way that is more secure, that supports our employees, that gives us access to greater capacity and more storage than we can provide in house, and does it in a way that allows us to make investments for the future. It's really a critical part of our strategy for how we are transforming information technology at DoI.

How has the current budget environment affected IT spending?

We are obviously not immune to the tight fiscal climate in D.C. I can't lie to you, it has definitely made it harder for us to make some of the investments we need to go into the future. Consolidating data centers and closing data centers that's challenging stuff and some of that requires up-front investment.

It has been my belief since I arrived at the department having had some experience in the private sector that the inherent redundancy in some of our duplicative systems meant that we could begin to make the move into a more consolidated infrastructure and to things like cloud computing that we could free up capital from existing budgets to invest in subsequent phases of transformation.

One of the ways we have built confidence with our leadership and with OMB and folks on the Hill [is] that we have never asked for new funding for what is ultimately a very bold move into the future. However, as we are looking at a constrained budget environment we have had to take sequester cuts like everybody else. That has made it a little bit harder to maneuver in this environment, but we are still fairly confident we can achieve our long-term goals. We have had to shift things out to the right a little bit in terms of how much longer it takes to get to lower-cost operating environments. But we are still relatively confident that we can achieve those goals with a little bit of extra time and continuing to plug away at what is a monumental challenge.

What are you doing in cybersecurity to make your networks and data more secure and minimize those risks?

It's a very timely topic. As we look to rely in some cases more heavily on cloud computing and the private sector market to meet our computing needs, we have looked at how we build controls into that process so that we leverage governmentwide tools, like moving most of our traffic through trusted Internet connections so we can monitor that traffic and building in continuous monitoring tools into our applications and all of our systems so that no matter wherever they reside, such as in a government-run data center or a third-party cloud hosting environment, we have an eye on what's going on in the environment and who is accessing the data and how the data is being used. We have flags that tell us when something is anomalous so we can do further investigation.

As you look at modernizing systems, what are you doing in mobility to make sure employees have the tools they need?

I would say that mobility is critical to our future. We have a unique mission among federal agencies in that land management is a big part of what we do. That means that we are out in the field and we operate out of 2,500 locations at last count. We have a lot of folks who spend the bulk of their time actually not in an office collecting data, assessing the land and making landscape level decisions, and it's critical for us to consider how we support those folks while they are out in the field.

Is there an IT end goal that you would like to get to with these modernization goals and reforms?

Ultimately, everything is driven by our vision of the end state. In that end state, we are fully supporting our employees in their mission by making sure they have access to the tools and data they need wherever they may be [and] that we are facilitating our interaction with the public in ways that support the ultimate goals of the department and the needs of the taxpayers for the services we provide.

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