Federal CIO Urges Bold Vision For Government IT

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel calls Obamacare site's launch something "to be proud of" and urges government IT community to view bugs as a "teachable moment."
Top 10 Government IT Innovators Of 2013
Top 10 Government IT Innovators Of 2013
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Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, in one of his first public appearances since May, urged government and industry IT officials on Tuesday to look beyond the tactical elements of IT projects and embrace a more strategic and modular approach. VanRoekel also outlined the Obama administration's IT priorities for fiscal year 2014 and responded to criticisms of the problem-plagued launch, urging the IT community to view what went wrong as a "teachable moment" for government.

VanRoekel's priorities for fiscal 2014 -- innovating, delivering federal IT systems that meet agency needs, and protecting those systems -- carry over themes from 2013, but he placed new emphasis on people as a fourth pillar of his agenda.

Following furloughs of federal workers during the partial government shutdown and amid continued sequestration and budget uncertainty, VanRoekel acknowledged that "it's really hard to attract and retain talent." But he also said the opportunity for government IT pros to make a difference on a large scale remains a compelling reason to consider public service. He said the administration plans to devote more attention to training and redeploying IT workers, such as email administrators whose jobs are being eliminated as agencies consolidate email systems.

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Programs such as the president's Innovation Fellows, which attracts entrepreneurs to government to address specific challenges, will also continue to play a role in bringing talented people to government IT efforts, VanRoekel said, speaking at the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va.

VanRoekel said agency IT efforts must become more customer-centric, recalling when President Obama asked during a meeting: "How come I can't track a passport application the way I can track a package on" And he urged audience members, mostly federal IT pros, to share their successes with one another. "If you're doing something great in customer service, let's scale it," VanRoekel said. At the same time, he invited the executives in the audience to inform his office about IT issues that need more attention.

VanRoekel also emphasized the importance of "marrying usability and modularity" as a way to buy and deliver IT services more efficiently. He lauded Department of Homeland Security deputy CIO Margie Graves for DHS's build-once, use-often reference architecture for mobile services and devices, an approach he said typifies the government goal of delivering better services at lower cost.

He reiterated the need for agencies to tackle IT programs in smaller, more modular chunks. "Monolithic failure cannot be the norm for government," he said, without referring specifically to the registration exchange, which didn't follow that prescription. "Agencies must use modular development to reduce risk."

VanRoekel did address some of the criticisms leveled at the rollout on Oct. 1.

What "doesn't get a lot of coverage is the boldness" demonstrated, he said, pointing to the integration of so many legacy systems and the creation of a site that "operates on an Internet scale." VanRoekel argued that the government's willingness to tackle something on such a scale, with such "incredible complexity," is "something to be proud of" despite's initial failings. VanRoekel recounted his experience working at Microsoft when a major software product launch he oversaw was recalled because of unforeseen problems.

"The key thing here is to ask, 'What can we learn from this?'" he said. He noted how the Department of Veterans Affairs used the loss of a laptop containing the records of 26 million veterans as an opportunity to review and overhaul its IT organization, giving the VA CIO singular responsibility for IT policies across the department.

Looking longer term, VanRoekel reiterated his vision for federal agency IT, one where departments and agencies take on more centralized operation of commodity IT services such as email and core enterprise systems. "I want the CIO at FAA to wake up and go to bed thinking about flight safety," he said, and "not wondering about email or where am I with commodity contracts."

VanRoekel also said that protecting federal networks and other critical infrastructure against cyber threats remains a core IT priority of the Obama administration. He noted that of the $80 billion budgeted for IT in the president's 2014 budget, $13 billion is set aside for cybersecurity. He also pointed to the growing number of cloud services and applications granted cloud security authorizations under the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP).

In closing, VanRoekel urged his federal colleagues to "own the future we want to see" and to embrace the notion of continual improvement.

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