As chief information officer of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ann Dunkin is charged with modernizing the IT infrastructure of the 15,000-person strong office.

Dunkin spoke with Senior Reporter Carten Cordell

about the progress that EPA is making in reforming its IT acquisition process and the challenge of shifting from legacy systems to agile development. 

Can you talk about how FITARA has changed the role of CIOs when it comes to managing an agency's IT infrastructure?

FITARA provides CIOs with very specific budget and acquisition authority that allows infrastructure projects to be managed and supported from an enterprise perspective. At EPA, as part of our FITARA implementation, we have instituted portfolio reviews with all offices who manage infrastructure. We look at their current state and paths forward to ensure a consistent vision. As such we have been able to provide direction for data center consolidation and provide guidance on enterprise tool adoption.

At the same time, FITARA has sparked enterprise thinking at local levels. I have been heartened to hear about programs and offices taking their own initiative to both stem decisions that would not pass FITARA, and also to share innovative solutions that could be adopted on a larger scale.

Since we saw the first FITARA scorecards come out last November, what progress have you seen made towards them at EPA and what have you learned?

Much of our first year of FITARA was focused on getting the CIO involved in the acquisition reviews and IT portfolio reviews. These have been instrumental in helping us set up strategies for streamlining acquisitions, identifying model agile projects, and communicating expectations for buy over build, leveraging e-Enterprise, and addressing storage issues.

That said, the areas where EPA fared well on the scorecard are Incremental Development and Risk Assessment Transparency. These are areas in which I remain heavily involved.  We look at the employment of agile methodologies in all acquisition and portfolio reviews, and our implementation plan includes standing up a fellowship program that will bring agile skill sets to EPA IT projects.

You started a major reorganization of EPA's IT infrastructure in 2015. How did FITARA inform the changes you wanted to make and where is the agency today compared to your ultimate vision?

These changes are all part of the reorganization of the Office of Environmental Information. The reorganization has been in process for some time and we expect to finalize it in July 2016.  We initiated the reorganization to respond to new developments in information technology, to help make decisions to adopt new solutions, and to improve the quality of our services to the EPA customers and mission. The new organization will help us promote the use of agile and user-focused development methodologies, and to ensure we have customer advocacy built into our organizational structure.  Pending the finalization of the reorganization, we have started standing up some of the new consulting services and have provided key development direction to major EPA mission systems.  I am very happy with the direction we have set to ensure that OEI is an integral partner in the IT support to the EPA mission.

What are the biggest challenges you see facing CIOs in moving from their legacy systems to agile development?

We need to encourage IT project teams to be forthcoming about their needs for change and ensuring the CIOs provide the hands-on assistance needed to help.  "Agile" cannot simply become another word that is included in FITARA reviews to get an acquisition approval; it is a methodology that must be taught, modeled and demonstrate its success.  We are setting up a fellowship program at EPA to embed staff with cutting-edge user experience and agile development skills with our programs. These resources will help foster and grow those skill sets within EPA.

That said, we have also discovered some true hotbeds of agile expertise in the agency, and we are using them to help spread the word. One of the IT project managers recently met with staff from the contracting office to help them understand key differences in conducting IT procurements in an agile project environment. She called out the greater degree of transparency in agile methodologies, as well as citing increased quality of releases due to ongoing testing. When messages of success come from the programs, people listen.