Federal CIO Outlines Next Steps

Feb 21, 2013 (09:02 AM EST)

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The Obama administration's second term has gotten off to a fast start for federal CIO Steven VanRoekel. In the past few weeks, he's been quizzed by lawmakers on the need for additional IT reform and the Department of Energy has been hit by a sophisticated cyber attack. Now the threat of budget cuts triggered by sequestration looms.

In an interview with InformationWeek Government at his White House office, VanRoekel acknowledged that federal IT teams continue to face technical, operational and funding challenges. Yet he cited "incredible progress" on efforts to improve the performance and efficiency of federal IT, and he has a plan for next steps.

VanRoekel was appointed federal CIO in August 2011, replacing Vivek Kundra, now a senior VP with Kundra launched several major government-wide IT initiatives, cloud computing and open government programs and data center consolidation among them. VanRoekel continues to push those projects forward while introducing new ones of his own, such as shared services, a "digital government" strategy and IT portfolio management.

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The progress the Obama administration has made on IT reform hasn't sold everyone. In a January hearing titled "Wasting IT Dollars" before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Cal., and others grilled VanRoekel over what they called "obsolete," "deficient," "bloated," and "inefficient" federal IT and questioned his plans for further reform.

VanRoekel told lawmakers he was focusing on three priorities: innovating for the American people, improving the return on investment for federal IT, and enhancing cybersecurity, or as he put during our interview, "innovate, deliver and protect." He said he wants to see shared services and modular, agile, low-cost and efficient IT development become the norm in federal government.

That will be a major undertaking. Federal IT continues to suffer from IT project failures, inefficiencies, cost overruns and management turnover. In recent weeks, Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker and CTO Peter Levin have both disclosed plans to leave their positions.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has managed to hold the line on government-wide IT spending for the past four years, agency CIOs are being held more accountable for their IT projects and portfolios, and the feds are consolidating data centers, all while delivering more in the way of government data and digital services.

The grand visions of former federal CIO Kundra are giving way to pragmatism under VanRoekel, whose mantra has been "doing more with less," and the realization of improved IT efficiencies and performance is arguably closer than it was at the beginning of Obama's White House tenure.

However, VanRoekel might have to modify his mantra to "do more with even less." For budget planning purposes, the Office of Management and Budget instructed agencies to cut 10% from their IT budgets and reinvest 5%. Sequestration, triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011, could cut IT spending even more, a threat that VanRoekel worries could stall important IT projects and pose cybersecurity risks.

The federal IT budget stands at $79 billion for fiscal 2013. "If we just found savings and poured it back into the top of the existing machine and say, this is the way we build solutions in government and this is the way we've always built solutions in government, we would waste that money," VanRoekel said. "We have to change the way we build and deploy and use technology. We have to find a way to live within our means, to continue to innovate and do that in a cost neutral or cost negative way."

As VanRoekel told Congress in January and repeated in his interview with InformationWeek Government, that vision doesn't require new laws aimed at improving the management of federal IT. "There is room within the existing law to do what we need to do, and I think we're making, compared to a few years ago, incredible progress," he told InformationWeek. "The fear I have is that legislation is a snap in time. Technology laws are touchy. You don't want to accidentally create a vendor preference or a technology preference that might be outdated in a year or two."

Front and center among OMB's efforts is PortfolioStat, a series of face-to-face, data-based reviews of agency IT portfolios attended by an agency's IT leadership and other top managers. The first series of PortfolioStat reviews uncovered $2.5 billion in potential IT saving, according to OMB.

"We don't have a [legal] entitlement problem," VanRoekel said. "I think we have a governance problem, and that's why PortfolioStat has the deputy secretary, sub-agency CIOs, the head CIO, the CFO, the Chief Human Capital Officer, all the C-levels sitting around a table saying you have to think about things different."

OMB plans to expand PortfolioStat this year by "moving up the stack" from duplicative commodity systems -- its initial area of focus -- to other areas of IT. "The team is going out and thinking not only about how many email servers is this department running, how many this, how many that, but also how much should email cost, so that we can try to set baselines and figure out how to maximize savings and ROI," VanRoekel said.

PortfolioStat has done more than uncover the most obvious cost savings, VanRoekel said. It's also helped OMB categorize agencies based on their level of IT maturity. The different types include "Wild West" agencies where every sub-agency does its own thing, agencies that are rationalizing commodity IT, agencies that are rationalizing mission IT, and those that are service oriented. Understanding the differences should help IT strategic planning, according to VanRoekel.

The Digital Government Strategy, launched last May, is another area of focus for VanRoekel in Obama's second term. The strategy seeks to improve the delivery of government services by making more data available through Web APIs and to mobile devices. The strategy guides federal IT teams to use government-wide contract vehicles for mobile procurements, ensure digital services adhere to customer service improvement guidelines, and "optimize" citizen-facing services for mobile use.

VanRoekel's other key concern is cybersecurity. Under a program called CyberStat, he plans to participate in meetings with agency officials that focus on objectives such as adoption of HSPD-12 cards, multi-factor authentication and continuous monitoring technologies. The Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration have issued a $6 billion procurement to provide continuous monitoring as a service to other agencies over five years.

FedRAMP, a program to accelerate the adoption of cloud computing in federal government, will see "a pretty steady clip" of new vendors receiving authorization to provide those services, VanRoekel said. The program could be expanded to cover mobile devices and services next.

Security checks of mobile devices and services "don't generally keep up with the pace of technology," VanRoekel said. The concept of a FedRAMP-style mobile program would be to manage security authorizations centrally for use across agencies. Devices and services that make it through the program would get a stamp of approval saying in effect, "this is trusted across the federal government," said VanRoekel.

The Obama administration still has four years of hard work ahead, but VanRoekel is already thinking about the outcomes he would like to see in federal IT. They include "a government that can build modular, agile solutions that can be shared across agencies and is super-efficient, all in a low-cost environment." He also wants to federal government to be an appealing place to work for talented IT workers.

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