With Obama's first term in the rearview mirror, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel is looking for ways to continue to improve federal IT even in the face of looming budget cuts.
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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 Salesforce.com. 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.
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."