Firm fixed price, time and materials, cost plus, single award, multi-award — a federal CIO encounters contract choices and decisions galore. How does a federal information technology organization navigate the intersection of technology innovation and endless choices?

As the deputy chief information officer for the Department of Homeland Security, I find myself in the unique position of witnessing the dramatic acceleration of IT advancement and the government’s desire to accelerate the use of technologies within their mission.

Within the department, I have heard it said that that if you have cloud computing, agile development, and DevOps, then you are one step closer to heaven. While I don’t know if this is true, the emergence of cloud computing, advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, mobile citizen access to government service, and next-generation network capabilities are no longer theoretical. They are part of today’s innovative technology discussion, and they are the responsibilities of federal CIOs as they continue to advance their agency’s mission.

What does that mean for a federal CIO as technology advances and innovation becomes a necessity? What does that mean for a geographically dispersed workforce like DHS, where access to data and information sharing are intrinsic to what we do every day?

DHS remains a relatively new federal organization, recently recognizing its 15-year anniversary, and the department’s evolving mission requires technical innovation to stay ahead of advancing threats. Fiscal realities require the IT community to think differently about resource planning and shared outcomes across the department.

As federal CIOs, we are working to do the same things faster, better and cheaper, and many private-sector CIOs face these same IT challenges. I’ll come back to this later. Technical advancements like cloud computing offer us the opportunity to explore the application of IT resource dollars more wisely, and to reduce the cost of fixed data center overheads, hardware/software recapitalization, and speed to delivery. This offers opportunity for many federal and industry CIOs alike.

We have found that innovative approaches to cloud technology are not a singular activity, but instead, they are multifaceted, because they require consideration of both the network layer “to connect” the cloud, and the security layer “to protect and monitor” in the cloud. So in order to keep pace with the Department’s expanding mission and also incorporate new capabilities, we must define an enterprise cloud strategy that incorporates the modernization of the department’s network, while enhancing the department’s security operations capabilities. Sounds complex and challenging? Well it is.

The DHS Office of the CIO is focusing on three things that will help us accomplish this goal. I’ll use their technical names, but I’ll ask that you continue reading into the following descriptions to understand the outcomes and capabilities we are moving to:

  • OneNet modernization – This is how we are modernizing our network so that it is more resilient and robust. OCIO is moving to a managed service, reducing technical debt, and positioning the network to maximize access to our data centers and cloud providers. Our goal is a network where information can flow smoothly across all of our missions and “devices.”
  • Cloud computing and data center optimization – This is how we are enhancing our compute and storage models. Optimizing data centers and moving to the cloud lets us compute and store data as a service. This provides us with the elasticity to “surge” when the mission requires more capacity, and reduce our capacity when we need less. It also lets us move away from owning and operating legacy IT, and concentrate on application management instead of hardware management. OCIO is optimizing Data Center (DC) 1 and DC 2, and championing a vendor-agnostic, hybrid move to the cloud across the Department.
  • Security operations center (SOC) consolidation – This is how we are improving our cybersecurity posture, and securing our data. OCIO is consolidating the Department’s SOCs and improving visibility. This improves data security and monitoring. Our goal is a comprehensive display that shows all of our devices, so we can see what’s on our network uniformly across the Department.

These are our top areas of focus to move the DHS IT infrastructure where it needs to go. They will help the department adopt cloud computing, advanced analytics, AI, mobile citizen access to government service, and next-generation network capabilities to go faster, better and cheaper with IT. And we can’t go it alone. We must be innovative in our approach to acquisition, innovative in our approach to understand the outcomes we desire, innovative in our approach to ensure clear understanding of the challenges we are trying to solve.

In my opinion, the first acquisition barrier to success is a common understanding of the problem and desired outcome. I mentioned earlier that many CIOs in both the federal and private sector are facing the same set of challenges. If you happen to be a company that is interested in doing IT business with the government, you may want to first have a conversation with your CIO. They may have some insights into our challenges, and understand successful outcomes.

OCIO is partnering with the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer to move in this direction. There is a recognition that our current procurement processes cannot keep pace with IT.

OCPO created the Procurement Innovation Lab in 2015 as a virtual lab to experiment in some of these areas. This includes technical demonstrations and online videos by industry, as well as the reverse industry day concept. We have partnered with OCPO on these days, which are an opportunity for government to hear from industry about what they would like us to do. And we are looking to the venture capital community to understand emerging technologies. The more we understand about what drives IT businesses to make decisions, the better our chances of a successful procurement.

I also have found value from taking a page from the proverbial acquisition handbook and engaging everyone on the team — procurement, budget, program analysts and other professionals — to do some ground work to ensure a common baseline. In our case, this means taking the team to visit current data center operations or tour cloud facilities. This helps with a common understanding of cloud computing scale and concepts, current data center operations, and the scale and complexity of a 24/7/365 mission infrastructure.

In my opinion, we can’t communicate or collaborate enough — the more we understand our challenges and opportunities, the better our chances of a successful procurement strategy and approach. The goal is to get everyone on the same page and focus on outcomes.

As a department, we should be innovative in our approaches. The old ways of doing business don’t work for DHS IT. While industry hopefully is thinking of exciting new technologies to solve our problems, DHS should be thinking about exciting new ways to asses, request, evaluate and purchase those technologies and incorporate those capabilities.

Collaboration across the DHS c-suite — known internally as the “CXOs” — is an IT imperative. This includes articulating our needs, and providing an environment for vendors to innovate. We should adapt across our team and strive to speak the same language so industry can understand our goals and we can move DHS IT in the right direction.

Stephen Rice is principal deputy chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security. He previously served as CIO of the Transportation Security Administration.