There used to be a time when the government was at the leading edge of technological innovation. But federal agencies have fallen so far behind that they will have to work aggressively just to catch up with basic private sector practices, according to federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent.

“We still have many things to do just to be current in the 21st century,” Kent said at a May 24, 2018, IBM event. “There’s no question that we need to move against those aggressively.”

According to Kent, agencies will have to pursue decades-long data and IT modernization plans so that government services meet the expectations citizens have cultivated from commercial tech experiences.

“The way that we’re positioning that is through incubators,” said Kent. “And incubators to solve very specific problems so that we can have tactical answers to some of those guiding principles: protection of privacy; how do we leverage data; what’s the hygiene; what are our shared models; what can we share; how can we accept that data; and what does that model look like?

“Large-scale transformation ... takes a vision, and it takes multiple years. So the funding we have has to support that process.”

Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives, said that he expects the modernization of government IT and management to be a problem that could take 20 or more years, and that policies implemented across agencies will have to account for that length of time.

Kent said that some agency representatives, speaking at a meeting with academia and business leaders, noted they had needed to fight years to simply share data between different parts of an agency.

The administration intends to address problems such as those through the President’s Management Agenda by emphasizing projects that break siloes between agencies and consider multiple aspects of the modernization process.

“What’s different about this agenda and the way that we’re approaching it is ensuring that we bring technology, people and the data together in the processes at the exact same time,” Kent said.

According to Lira, the fact that the administration, Congress and agency policies are all focused on the same primary issues helps to quickly reinforce changes.

An executive order signed by the president May 14, 2018, for example, places additional weight behind agency CIO authorities already called for in congressional legislation, such as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act and the Clinger-Cohen Act.

In fact, Lira said that he was thrilled with the oversight conducted in the FITARA hearing held May 23, 2018, because it reinforced accountability for agencies instituting important IT changes and policies.

Lira called this alignment between IT policies in pursuit of IT improvements “amazing.”

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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