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2011 Budget Shows Evolution of IT Management Thinking

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By any measure, the 2011 budget request from the Obama administration is big. But when it comes to federal spending on IT in the next fiscal, it's clear that the days of high single-digit or double-digit growth are over. Spending will be approximately $80 billion, a slight increase over enacted 2010 spending.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. The administration has a deep commitment to using IT to supporting its goals of transparency, collaboration and participation, data-driven decision-making, and better citizen service.

For the IT community, the most important thing to keep in mind is that opportunities for contractors are by no means disappearing, but the mix of acquisitions is changing. There will be fewer big-dollar, grand-design systems integration projects but more lower cost projects. Budget documents specifically call out data.gov, the IT dashboard, Apps.gov, and CyberScope (for cyber security reporting) as examples of its "commitment to changing the way government works." What these projects have in common is a high degree of leveraging of data for small investments. And it is the kind of project you'll be seeing throughout government. This is a logical development, given that the human input -- requirements planning, system design, testing and implementation -- are the most costly parts of IT now, with hardware not only ever cheaper but being replaced by infrastructure/software-as-a-service.

The administration, in the Analytical Perspectives/Special Topics section of the budget, spells out its priorities clearly. Interestingly, it doesn't toss out all of the Bush-era President's Management Agenda items and in fact references some of them even as it tries to improve on them. So the efforts of previous years are not wasted. Nor is the investment roster changing all that radically. Agencies' 807 major IT investment in 2009 will drop slightly to 781 this year, and rise back to 809 in 2011. In fact, requested (not enacted) spending for IT in 2009, the last purely Bush administration budget, was $71 billion, so the requested $79.3 billion for 2011 shows, if anything, a refreshed commitment to better government through technology.

With respect to how management approaches are evolving, the most notable case in point is the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART, of the Bush Office of Management and Budget. The Obama administration officials feel PART was not granular nor frequent enough in its application. It has been superseded by the High-Priority Performance Goal Initiative, in which each agency has been asked to identify performance goals that are measurable and have an impact visible to their constituencies. IT investment strategies are aimed at supporting the performance goals. Some ongoing initiatives are simply continuing, such as the Trusted Internet Connection and Core Desktop Configuration.

Thus the key IT management priorities for 2011 include these:

  • Less infrastructure spending agency-to-agency. In the administration's words, "This new approach will redesign IT in key business areas from the ground up, based on the concept of central Federal platforms designed to streamline processes and modernize information technology services." Translation: More shared functions, more consolidation of data centers, and more use of cloud computing. In many ways this is a restating of the earlier Lines of Business initiative, but with the added emphasis on cloud.

(And speaking of cloud, agency managers are going to have to come to grips with their security concerns, learn to write service level agreements that specify and verify security, and get on with it. A project between the Air Force and IBM to engineer security in cloud computing settings should help this effort along.)

  • Renewed emphasis on aggregate federal buying power. Here again, the new team references the General Services Administration's Smart Buy software acquisition program, adding that it's "limited in scope and much more can be done." Apps.gov falls into the much more category.
  • Larger and more skilled Federal IT workforce. The Analytical Perspectives says that this year, the CIO Council will conduct a survey of the IT workforce (GS-2210 designations) to help CIOs gage their future needs. And it promises streamlined hiring processes to get new people in to replace the anticipated 2,500 retirees out of a workforce of 70,000. Perhaps more significantly to CIOs, the administration wants to keep pushing use of online, Web 2.0 collaboration tools to enable IT staff to work across agency boundaries.
  • Customer service. Simplification of the online student loan application process is the reference project here. The administration cites its goals of streamlining veterans benefits processing and status-checking of citizenship applications as examples of the types of projects it will be pushing agencies to do. Here again, you can see evolution in approaches pioneered by the e-government projects of the early Bush years. Also on the agenda is what OMB is calling a citizen services dashboard to highlight "the top services delivery touch points for each major federal department and agency." Think on-time airline reporting.
  • Cyber security. Evolution once again, as the administration asks agencies to zero in on the metrics that most directly affect security. Reporting under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) is enhanced by the online collection site CyberScope, launched in October. (The naming is a bit unfortunate, as an online search of the term will show.) CyberScope is an important step in getting around the major weakness in FISMA. Namely, that an agency can have great FISMA scores while having under-secured networks.
  • Greater willingness to cancel or time-out projects significantly over budget or late. Kundra said this week that a portion of a $50 million part of the IT budget will devoted to conducting Tech-Stat Accountability sessions, reviews of such projects by the agency CIO and other interested parties such as program managers and finance people. It's a bit of old wine in a new bottle; think DOD's Major Automated Information Systems Acquisition Review Councils of yesteryear. But Kundra said the sessions have already started, and that he personally will be attending many of them.

Washington is embroiled in bitter partisan arguments these days. Like last weekend's snowstorm that thumped the region, the debates seem worse than anyone can remember. But at least in the IT and good-government realm, the 2011 budget and the management imperatives it outlines show that the administration, as it enters its second year, is building on 20 years of e-government efforts.

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