Just because IT budgets are flattening doesn’t mean agencies can’t innovate in the technology field, federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said Tuesday. VanRoekel wants agencies to cut and invest at the same time, something he said is a given in the private sector, but uncharted territory for government.
For too long, the government’s approach to technology modernization has been pretty straightforward: just add more money to IT budgets, VanRoekel told technology leaders.
“We don’t have a culture that lets us take from the old and deliver to the new. We hold on to what we’ve got,” he told a gathering of government and industry IT professionals at the annual FOSE conference in Washington, sponsored by 1105 Government Information Group.
In the private sector, where VanRoekel previously served as a Microsoft executive, companies under pressure to grow and innovate can make swift decisions to shift money from budgets used to operate and maintain old systems and push those funds into something new. In government, the only time new investment happens is when overall IT budgets grow, he said. That recipe isn’t going to work anymore. Federal IT spending has been flat since 2009, and the trajectory isn’t likely to change anytime soon. VanRoekel said the reflexive, cultural response to that in government would be to simply keep maintaining old IT systems and stop innovating.
“In an arbitrary way, the innovation decisions are made for us [by the budget],” he said. “There’s just this culture that says we have to wrap our arms around the things that we’ve funded in the past. That model just hasn’t worked. But I’m proud to say that on that flat or declining budget, we’ve already innovated a lot.”
The innovation so far, he said, has been in areas like reducing duplication in IT spending within and between agencies, consolidating email systems and mobile contracts, and beginning to strengthen the roles of agency CIOs.
VanRoekel said there’s plenty more work to do on those fronts, but he said much of the future innovation agencies pull off will surround how effective they are at opening up their vast storehouses of data, unlocking it so that it can be used in meaningful ways by both the government and the public.
“In government, we always couple our data together with our presentation systems. We gather a bunch of data because of some statute or some business rule, and then we throw it out on some website,” he said. “oftentimes it exists by itself. It’s not machine-readable. It’s presented in a very closed way.”
Those data silos each exist for a reason, but VanRoekel said with all the time and effort agencies expend to gather and assemble information, that data should at least be easy to find. Right now, it’s not even a needle in a haystack problem. With data sets scattered across an estimated 1,700 federal websites in various formats, most people can’t even track down the haystacks.
Instead, VanRoekel said, the government needs an IT portfolio that’s “customer-centric” by design. He said finding government data should be as easy as finding new music on Pandora.
“If you have a favorite artist and you throw up a Pandora station, you wind up finding incredible new music that you didn’t know existed,” he said. “We have an opportunity in government to break down our silos, to break our data away from our presentation systems, to digitize everything we do as the new default. We have to get into a mode where data is a living thing around government. It needs to be discoverable, where you can find relatedness across data sets and across agencies and across walls in government. We need an outside-looking-in instead of an inside-looking-out perspective. Data is the core of everything we do and deliver.”
Government as a platform
VanRoekel said he wants agencies to start thinking of themselves as platforms for data delivery. Without offering any more details, he said agencies will see some direction from the White House along those lines later this year.
Another piece of direction agencies already have as of recently is to come up with a high-level, top-to-bottom review of their IT portfolios. Agencies are supposed to report back to OMB by June 15. It’s the first step of a new process called PortfolioStat, an outgrowth of Techstat.
“We’re telling every chief operating officer or deputy secretary to report up to us all the IT they’re implementing,” VanRoekel said. “We will know how much duplication is out there. We’ll know, across the whole of an agency, how many mobile contracts they have, how many PC buying contracts they have. It would be unthinkable in the private sector to have more than one of those. We need to drive just maniacally in these agencies to streamline this stuff. That’s what’s going to create the investment capital we need to innovate.”
VanRoekel said the duplication-reduction prospects aren’t just theoretical. Among other agency success stories, the Agriculture Department already has cut its email costs down to a third of what they used to be by consolidating 21 separate email systems into one.
“We really have a horizontal opportunity, but we’re living in a vertical world,” he said. “USDA had 21 email systems because it was easier to deploy 21 email systems than it was to be bold and coordinate people to deliver one, even though it’s a third of the cost. It’s much easier to operate in silos, but we have a real opportunity across-the-board to think horizontally. We need to drive it into everything we do.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, 6 a.m.-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere.
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