Biggest challenge in realizing agile, efficient government IT continues to be the required cultural change, says Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel.
InformationWeek Government: When you talked to Congress, it seemed like you said that additional legislative reform for federal IT management isn't really necessary at this point. Is this an accurate assessment?
VanRoekel: It is, totally accurate. I did come out and say that I think legislation isn't necessary, that there is room within the existing law to do what we need to do. I think we're making incredible progress. The fear I always have is that legislation is a snap in time. There are many laws on the books that affect how we do things online, but that don't even mention the Internet. Good laws leave room for interpretation, but technology [laws] are kind of touchy. You have to think about how you manage this stuff so you don't accidentally create a vendor preference or a technology preference that might be outdated in a year or two. While we're making incredible progress, I don't think that additional legislation is needed so that we can keep that progress.
InformationWeek Government: Given that, how do you provide CIOs with the right level of budgetary authority? You have also expressed concerns about dealing with the single-year budget.
VanRoekel: Where there potentially is room for legislative motion is thinking about budget authority and how we do budgeting. If you look at agencies that have capital budgeting, for example, they have a lot more flexibility to adapt with changing technology or changing demands.
When you lock in to specific deliverables or years, and then your budget window is small because you have years when you get the budget passed and then when you actually get it appropriated, it doesn't leave you a lot of room to really make smart decisions, to make long-run decisions. It creates a dynamic that breeds inconsistency. We have to encourage [Congress] to think about how they work through that. One of the key elements of the 25-Point Federal IT Reform Plan was budget flexibility.
Where it gets hard is that a lot of sub-agencies in government have relationship with their appropriations committees. You have flows of money that come in a way that don't allow that department to look left or right to say, 'Where can we go with this stuff?' I don't think we have an entitlement problem: I think we have a governance problem. That's why PortfolioStat has the deputy secretary of the department, sub-agency CIOs, the head CIO, the CFO, the human capital officer, all the C-levels sitting around a table. We found $2.5 billion in the first wave of PortfolioStat, and we think there's more out there.
InformationWeek Government: What's the biggest challenge for federal IT as the Obama administration goes into its second term?
VanRoekel: It's continuing on the road of cultural change. As I came into government when I was managing the Federal Communications Commission, I did an all hands [meeting] and I said I want them to wake up every day with the spirit of continuous improvement, never use 'That's the way we've always done it' as an excuse for forward progress.
InformationWeek Government: When you talk about cultural change, you're talking about moving from a culture of "that's the way we've always done it," of just keeping the lights on, to a culture of innovation?
VanRoekel: If I was here in government eight years ago and we needed a website, someone would say, well that costs $10 million, so we need to go find a vendor and spend $10 million -- that's what websites cost in government. Coming from high tech, I sit down and ask, 'Why? Why does it cost that much?' You can do things like create our Presidential Innovation Fellows program, have the RFP-EZ team come in and create this cool interface to engage small, agile vendors to rethink the way we do those kind of things. Now we say websites cost less than $150,000 and you get incredible output. You can change that dynamic, that culture, you just have to work your way through creating tools and resources and awareness.
InformationWeek Government: Are there any forthcoming policy changes or [Office of Management and Budget]-led IT initiatives that we should be aware of?
VanRoekel: We'll be doing lots of new things over the course of the second term, but all in all they'll follow the themes that we've followed before: How we think about innovation and the innovation agenda, how we think about ROI and moving up that stack and, on cybersecurity, we're going to keep moving down that road. Those are wide lanes in which to drive.
When I incubate a product or think about a new job, I tend to write the press release for the product for the last day I'm in that job. I've already written that press release. I've got it locked in a fireproof safe in my house on paper and I've deleted the electronic file. I want to always think about those outcomes -- what I want to say that I did, then work my way backward from that. At the end of the day, I want a government that can build modular, agile solutions completely differently than we do today that can be shared across agencies and that are superefficient. I want to create an opportunity for people who work in technology who are newly out of school or newly inspired to come find the federal government a great place to work and spread their wings and to give them permission to innovate within government and think differently, and I want to do it all in the context of a low-cost environment.
. We've got a management crisis right now, and we've also got an engagement crisis. Could the two be linked? Tune in for the next installment of IT Life Radio, Wednesday May 20th at 3PM ET to find out.