Federal IT is far from horrible, CIOs say

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Federal chief information officers say recent comments by President Obama and federal CIO Vivek Kundra that “federal IT is horrible” hurt morale and add to the perception problem that agency technology is behind industry.

Eighty percent of those who responded to a Federal News Radio survey say bashing federal IT is hurtful, while 60 percent say the perception of federal IT is a bigger problem than the technology itself.

“There are plenty of problems, but generalizations are not productive in terms of bringing about change. Focus on specific problems,” one respondent wrote, citing OMB’s 25 Point Plan as a good example of the desired focus.

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Federal News Radio asked 81 CIOs and deputy CIOs to respond to 15 questions after the President and Kundra made remarks about the status of federal IT in mid-April. Of those who responded, three were cabinet level agencies, four were from large non-cabinet agencies and eight were from small agencies. Almost all were career employees and 80 percent have been in their position for more than a year.

In April, President Obama commented federal IT purchasing is horrible. “I’m like, ‘Come on guys, I’m the president of the United States. Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff, and the big screen comes up?’ It doesn’t happen,” he said in comments picked up by the media when his microphone was left open during an event.

Then Kundra followed with comments to several news publications saying the President is correct, federal IT is horrible.

Kundra’s comments about the state of federal IT have been commonplace from Office of Management and Budget officials. Jeff Zients, OMB’s deputy director for management, has said many times the state of federal IT is poor.

But the CIOs who work with the technology daily say the administration officials are inaccurate. Sixty percent say they do not agree with the President and Kundra’s comments.

“While I believe there is much work to be done, there has also been a great deal of accomplishment toward increased security, reduced costs, risk management and information sharing,” wrote one respondent.

Another said, “I believe most projects are run well. There are problems but they are the exceptions. However, because of their notoriety, they become the norm.”

Despite the notoriety of failed programs, 60 percent of the respondents rated their agencies good or excellent in how it helps them meet their missions.

One respondent said there are a lot of legacy technology problems to correct.

“Like many agencies, we are transitioning to new technology solutions. But, as a result of poor technology management in the past, there are a number of disparate systems that need to be replaced, retired or integrated into new systems. I have worked at other agencies and have seen similar situations,” another respondent wrote.

Comparing federal IT to the private sector brought a mixed reaction. Just more than half of the respondents also say their agency’s technology is as good as or better than the private sector.

But 40 percent said their agency’s IT is worse than the private sector.

“I have spent most of my career in the private sector. Federal IT advancements seem to lag behind the pace of change in the private sector. It would good to understand the primary root-causes for this,” one respondent wrote.

And those root causes are the impetus for OMB’s 25-point IT reform plan, as well as what many respondents said kept agencies behind the curve – government processes from procurement to budgeting to oversight.

Roger Baker, the Veterans Affairs Department’s CIO and assistant secretary for information and technology, said at a recent TechAmerica event the obstacles agencies face to get IT implemented are a big part of the problem.

“It’s all a matter of expectations and reference,” Baker said. “What could our great technology folks do if they were allowed to operate with the freedom from an acquisition, HR, from a variety of perspectives that many private sector organizations are allowed to operate from?”

He added that VA is trying to get management out of the way of the folks who are doing the real work.

“We have great IT folks in the federal government. They produce some awesome systems,” Baker said. “I think though everyone of them would agree they could do an even better job if we could figure out how to better optimize the processes they have to operate under and the things they use to get their tools done. I think that is what we have to stay focused on as CIOs.”

Many survey respondents say the processes are a challenge, but so are the competing policies and demands placed on them by OMB and Congress.

Almost three quarters of the respondents said those competing demands are their biggest challenge. Budget shortfalls (67 percent) and the procurement process (53 percent) also ranked high when asked what are the biggest challenges for CIOs.

As for the technology their agency needs to improve upon, CIOs were in agreement (67 percent) that mobile computing, application development/software and workforce skills needed the most attention. Cybersecurity (47 percent) and network infrastructure (40 percent) also ranked high according to CIO respondents.

One respondent wrote, “Bandwidth is a key improvement that we MUST make to fully leverage opportunities on the public cloud. Mobile computing might allow us to reduce our rent/lease costs. Application/SW development is NOT a core strength; we should contract this out. Agency workforce should have a higher level of basic skills in calendaring, collaboration tools like teleconferencing and Web meeting, social networking, and green printing.”

Despite the criticisms, the CIOs and deputy CIOs didn’t rate the administration’s efforts highly. Eighty-seven percent rated the White House’s efforts to improve IT as good or satisfactory, and none rated them as excellent.

“There’s not a sufficient appreciation for the operational imperatives and ineffective governance at agencies, and how these constrain our ability to dramatically improve systems,” one respondent commented.

Another said the administration has a lot of bark, but no bite.

The survey also asked the respondents to rank the administration’s major IT initiatives: cloud computing, openness/transparency, data center consolidation, cybersecurity, procurement reform, Techstat sessions, high risk list, workforce improvements and agile/rapid software development.

A majority of the respondents ranked OMB’s procurement reform and workforce initiatives as having a poor impact so far. Agile development, Techstat and the high risk list received satisfactory rankings for improving IT.

Several respondents offered advice about federal IT to the President and Kundra.

One wrote, “Enable IT to succeed if you want real change. Give CIOs metrics that force change.”

Another said, “You’re right on! But, there are challenges at the agencies that CIOs cannot fix without leadership from the White House that empowers CIOs.”

And finally, “You are certainly correct Mr. President but fixing the technology takes time and money and cannot be rushed through in 2-to-4 years. Even in private sector time, nothing as big and complicated as many federal systems are can be replaced in whole in that time. Plans have to be supported between administrations.”

(Copyright 2011 by FederalNewsRadio.com. All Rights Reserved.)