OMB wants digital services playbook to be more than shelfware

The U.S. Digital Services Playbook — and designated digital services experts — will play a bigger role as agencies develop and modernize their systems this year.

“We’re going to start to hold agencies and our acquisition partners, our private sector partners, more accountable to using something called the Digital Services Playbook,” said Lisa Schlosser, deputy chief information officer at the Office of Management and Budget, during the Association of Government Accountants Financial Systems Summit in Washington Jan. 19.

The playbook details 13 best practices designed to help agencies deliver products and services more quickly. OMB released the playbook in 2014.

Though Schlosser didn’t specify how OMB will hold agencies more accountable for using the playbook, they are getting some help. The U.S. Digital Services team is working with individual departments to identify and bring on digital services experts. These experts will help find and recruit new people to work at each agency, Schlosser said.

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“That does not mean we’re displacing all of you, your IT people,” she said. “We’re just trying to bring in a different set of skills to work side by side with you as you’re looking at your financial management systems in this case, and across your entire IT architecture, and help you bring in some of these modern digital practices.”

But as recent figures from OMB show, agencies aren’t yet jumping headfirst into developing and modernizing new technologies.

As of November 2015, agencies spent more than $80 billion on IT products and services, and yet only 24 percent of that total goes toward developing and modernizing new technology, Schlosser said. More than 75 percent goes toward operations and maintenance of existing technology.

The biggest challenges in implementing these new systems aren’t only related to budget uncertainty, though agencies certainly wouldn’t rule out that issue. The latest AGA and Accenture survey of chief information officers found that struggles with procurement, culture and talent management often outweighed any budgetary concerns.

At the Social Security Administration, where an aging group of federal employees handle 80 percent of the IT work and contractors perform the remaining 20 percent, updating the agency’s collective skill set is more important than ever. Robert Klopp, CIO at SSA, said he’s trying to strike the right balance between young and old talent to cultivate a new IT culture altogether.

“If we’re doing replacement and we have an old culture of IT, and every time someone retires, we pick some young person and we put them, bury them, spread [them] out in the old culture, the old culture has more impact on them than they do on the old culture,” he said. “We’re starting to ask ourselves and work with our HR folks about … every time we get 20 open slots or 20 people retire, whether we can actually pull those people out, put them through a training class and then somehow inject them back into the organization.”

House 2018 budget proposal lays groundwork for federal retirement cuts.

The Homeland Security Department was one of the first agencies to begin a digital services group. Luke McCormack, the CIO at DHS, said the department is bringing its current employees up to speed on new skills and hiring new people who have “the skills of tomorrow.”

“We were just at a job fair on cybersecurity and made about 70 tentative offers on the spot to a variety of recent grads and almost to-be-grads from that perspective,” he said. “That’s a different pool of employees to focus our attention on, but we’re trying to focus as much of our attention on our current employees and a migration to a new skill set.”

With help from digital services experts, OMB will push agencies to embrace different acquisition strategies when they develop and modernize those new systems.

“The other thing we’ll be looking at is how fast are you delivering new functionality in your information systems development projects,” Schlosser said. “Are you developing things like agile practices, iterative delivery of functionality? We’re trying to shift the whole culture of the way we buy, build and deliver technology.”

She pointed to two areas in the Digital Playbook of particular interest to the administration:

  • Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
  • Default to open

In emphasizing those two plays, Schlosser reiterated that no agency should start completely from scratch in developing new technology.

“No project should be taking years,” Schlosser said. “Projects should be taking, and functionality should be delivered, in weeks and months.”

SSA, for example, spent seven years and $350 million on a project before it threw all of its work away. Klopp said the agency will finish that same project using open source tools and agile development in one year for $30 million.

“The reality is, it should have only been $10 million or $15 million, but we inherited some fat from previous things,” he said. “Imagine, if by using open source software and agile, if the world changes so that there’s no such thing in the government as $300 million software projects anymore.”

Though open source and agile development are not new concepts, agency CIOs might need a nudge to focus on the new.

About 75 percent of CIOs said there is resistance to change at their agencies as they incorporate these authorities for their IT projects and budgets, according to Accenture’s CIO survey.

While Klopp touted the success SSA has had using agile development on his agency’s projects, he said it’s nearly impossible to catch up to new, developing technologies and stay ahead of the curve at the same time.

“There’s a myth that you can just transfer operations and maintenance to special projects and somehow modernize everything without a net investment to grow stuff,” he said. “Part of the problem is that there is some investment required to modernize IT systems, that somehow the government is going to find a way to make that investment. The investment will pay itself off when you get to the new world. … I would be careful about any suggestion that there’s some magic that for the same amount of money, you’re going to just keep everything running and modernize as well.”