Commentary about President Obama’s NEW IT team
May 4, 2009 at 7:40 pm #71367
Obama’s Triad Takes on Government IT
By Robert Otto
How the Obama administration’s CIO, CTO and CPO — an all-star lineup facing prodigious challenges — can transform government IT.
When I was asked to comment on the prospects for the federal government’s new IT leaders– what I’m calling the “Federal Triad” – a sports analogy immediately came to mind. Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and Jeffrey Zients – the new CIO, CTO and CPO respectively – are what I call ‘franchise players.’ Each is at the top of their game and has the drive and intelligence to enact significant and enduring change.
One would expect that the three together would create a dynasty with the ability to transform the playing field. This is my expectation, as I believe that the team assembled by the Obama Administration has the right ideas, attitude and backing to streamline, improve and transform government operations over the next several years.
Already, their plates are quite full as a number of initiatives have been proposed for this new Federal Triad, including:
• Making data and information more readily available;
• Expanding adoption of the latest collaboration tools, including Wikis, blogs, mashups, Facebook and Twitter;
• Measuring and monitoring agency performance more closely and publicly;
• Making government more efficient; and
• Standardizing our data and in particular, healthcare data.
These are the concerns that any forward-looking agenda should and must address. However, their agenda cannot just look to the future. Instead, the stark reality is this: running the existing business, which many refer to as legacy, consumes 60 to 85 percent of available resources. In other words, the vast majority of government IT resources are already committed to the care and feeding of existing programs and systems, leaving little room for innovation. The $64,000 question for government IT managers is how these concerns will be addressed in the race towards the next big thing.
While most would prefer to skate over these issues since there are no easy answers, the reality is that they present a significant obstacle to the Obama Administration’s openness, transparency and accountability agenda. Career government IT leaders, when tasked with pursuing “‘innovation,” will need to ask themselves two important questions:
• How do I turn off the legacy systems/infrastructure without a viable replacement?
• Where will I find the resources and skills to do this new stuff at the same time?
And these are the right questions for them to be asking. Part of the answer will continue to be “do more with less.” More specifically, they will need to be ruthless in their drive to consolidate, standardize and simplify IT operations and ever vigilant to new IT costs. But the Federal Triad will need to exercise leadership in this area as well and I believe that they will.
In terms of government IT, the biggest challenge facing the Federal Triad is that federal CIOs are torn between using their limited resources – dollars, staff, support, infrastructure, training, political capital – to support existing commitments or initiate new projects. It’s hard to justify pursuing a new innovation agenda, considering the extent of the hurdles that the average CIO needs to overcome:
• Aging infrastructure that is often unique to each agency;
• Support costs that rise faster than reductions can offset them;
• Legacy applications and program with their own sustaining Congressional constituency;
• Relatively limited control over IT within their agency, including priorities, standards and platforms;
• A stretched workforce that is rapidly approaching retirement with potential replacements lacking critical skills and institutional knowledge;
• A contractor community that is often more wedded to maintaining current revenue at the expense of solving the problem;
• Procurement bottlenecks that maintain the status quo and limit access to more innovative suppliers;
• An inability to easily share data and information across government due to a lack of common standards;
• Multiple networks and disparate communications systems that serve to isolate individual agencies;
• Lack of a single government network that would reach all employees and would connect seamlessly to every government agency;
• Hundreds of government website lacking an integrated search function or common architecture; and
• Agencies pursuing a ‘roll-your-own’ strategy, where each takes a unique approach to solving a common problem.
In reality, federal CIOs were often being asked to support government-wide priorities with insufficient resources or commitment for doing so. As a result, they remain solely focused on their agency’s objectives – and specifically, existing IT commitments – as this was their powerbase that funds and supports their operations.
So, what’s different this time? Will federal CIOs support the Federal Triad? My take is, yes and no.
By nature, they’re dedicated to public service and they’re committed to doing the right thing. However, they also need to rationalize their existing priorities and commitments and will be challenged to give these initiatives the support and attention that they deserve. The net result is that support in the field may be limited and success fleeting.
This raises important questions for how the Federal Triad should respond. First, I believe that they should continue with the five priorities that I outlined earlier, as they’re fundamental to the more citizen-centric government that the Obama Administration has promised.
That said, they also have to put forth a multi-year plan for how government IT should operate. At the vision level, this needs to be a “man on the moon” statement, due to the significant challenges government IT faces. Then there needs to be a roadmap of how to get there. This can’t be viewed as a one-time initiative—a strong government-wide vision backed by consistent managerial discipline is what has been too often missing at the federal level.
In reality, this multi-year government technology plan (GTP) should build upon the points that they’re already championing while addressing many of the concerns I’ve highlighted. The objective is to get ALL of government IT following the same marching orders so that we can capitalize on economies of scale and the benefits of consolidation while overcoming the constraints of interoperability once and for all.
Within the GTP, I’d advise them to address the following priorities:
1. As part of a performance-oriented culture, work with agency secretaries to ensure that a significant percentage – 50 percent – of the CIO’s bonus is directly related to success in implementing the GTP.
2. Standardize the role of CIO throughout government with more consistent roles, responsibilities, operational structures and performance measurements.
3. Establish as an overriding meta-model for all agencies an overall business, technology, service, data and information architecture for government.
4. Ensure greater consistency by defining a minimal set of common standards and governance requirements for mandatory use across all government agencies, including:
a. Security, identity and access controls
b. Data models and presentations
c. Application services
d. Datacenter operations and hosting
e. Network management
f. System interfaces
g. Telework policies
i. Project management methodologies
5. Establish a government-wide collaboration and information-sharing network to facilitate inter-agency cooperation and ad hoc workgroups.
6. Create a shared government cloud to replace the vast majority of federal, state and local data centers.
7. Extend the Bush-era line-of-business initiatives to support additional shared service centers supporting common requirements, such as HR, finance, procurement, real estate and facilities management, and help desks.
8. Mandate a single government-wide standard for data uses throughout government and support efforts, such as master data management, to create a ‘single citizen view’ across all agencies.
9. Consolidate research & development investments within a single, government-wide organization and require vendors to work through it to validate new technologies for government adoption.
10. Work with Congress to support procurement reform so that the government can capitalize on more innovative vendors and more agile business models.
The strategic benefits here are twofold. Rather that continuing to reinvent the wheel by duplicating common solutions, CIOs can focus their innovation and development resources on those areas of most strategic importance to their agency. And with a clear, long-term roadmap in place, they can develop, build and acquire new systems, infrastructure and policies that work to achieve these government-wide objectives.
While this may seem elementary, this level of clarity and specificity is needed to ensure that each agency is working off the same game plan and has no excuses for deviation from plan. While this won’t solve every problem—nor will it occur overnight—it will make it possible over a 10- to 12-year period to leave nearly all of our legacy constraints behind as agencies embrace a more standardized, centralized and simplified approach to IT.
May 5, 2009 at 1:05 am #71375
A very good plan indeed. Let us see how it turns out in practice.
May 6, 2009 at 6:45 am #71373
Alice M. FisherParticipant
I have to admit this is a great read.
I preface, I am not an IT expert by any way shape or means.
I have some knowledge. And, these are indeed huge tasks, no they go well beyond huge. It’s a major paradigm shift.
But, something each agency can and should do is a full analysis of their entire IT landscape with an internal data call that looks across Internet and Intranet related Web costs, all hardware costs, all associated Internet and intranet human resource related costs both FTE and contracted.
If a big picture was compiled and analyzed across all organizations within a single agency on where spending is and where is will be. What is old, what is replaceable/decommissionable (not too sure that is a real word) and what can be streamlined or cut back on. This is indeed a first step.
Instead of just building more widgets, gadgets, tools, acquiring COTS products, bodies and other IT related accoutrements.
What is hard is the disparity of older antiquated systems/databases/inefficiencies which are still running and being used but not compatible, no longer useful, needed nor inline with newer systems across differing agencies.
Ok my simplistic analogy is…likened to one agency with multiple internal organizations who are all speaking and living their own foreign language like a single country. And there is no commonality in being able to work together not better because nobody can understand each other. Everyone one has a different system, different language and different outputs.
Solving the systemic disparity issues is in deed a tough one, even for one single agency, let alone all agencies collectively.
And, let’s just put it on the table, then there is the whole internal political dynamics of merging/consolidating systems/organizations within an agency.
Therein lies another huge people challenge as well. Let’s admit it, being human beings, we do not like to give up, give in to what we have birthed, built or grown with our hands and our hard earned efforts. As “they” become our “babies”
How do you tackle the people dynamic with such huge systemic changes?
I read within the past year a short book by Harvard Business Review.
It is worthy of a read. It’s is fairly easy to digest, good for commuting.
It provides excellent information and insight on leading organizations during times of change.
In Kotter’s essay, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, he analyzes common errors of leading through change, and converts them into 8 steps for transforming an organization: (1) establishing a sense of urgency, (2) forming a powerful guiding coalition, (3) creating a vision, (4) communicating the vision, (5) empowering others to act on the vision, (6) planning for and creating short-term wins, (7) consolidating improvements and creating still more changes, and (8) institutionalizing new approaches. Kotter shows how these 8 principles can lead to either the downfall or the success of an organization.
I also found Ram Charan’s essay, “Conquering a Culture of Indecision”, to be extremely helpful. He outlines the steps for creating greater communication, turning that into action, and providing follow-through and feedback.’s a quick read. Found on Amazon.com
Who has performed such a baseline internal data call?
Successful? End result?
If there was a common data call set sent out for use for all agencies then this could be a starting point. Has anyone done that? Plausible? But, again the disparity across all agencies is so gigantic.
May 20, 2009 at 12:17 am #71371
Jeffrey D. Pound, Sr.Participant
I know that my job (Information Assurance (IA)) would be much easier, if all of the items that you outlined above were implemented.
My problem with all of this is that the USG Feds that I talk to usually are over committed already, I would be hard pressed to find one USG IT Fed in the agencies that I talk to, that does not feel like they are already letting important things go, because there are more important things to do. I have to admit that this rules my day. Every day I try to deal with the fires that burn the hottest. It is to the point that “Professionally Important” things like this collaboration, ending up taking “family” time.
I’m just glad that they have a movie to watch, that they know I hate!
May 20, 2009 at 12:22 am #71369
Jeffrey D. Pound, Sr.Participant
Where are the resources to make this happen, and no there is not sufficient resources in any Department, nor in all the Departments, to make it happen, unless we are allowed to allow the existing systems to fail.
We all know that won’t happen, nor should it. But something of this nature MUST be fully funded and staffed to have even a chance to work.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.