HUD Constructs IT Transformation

Department of Housing and Urban Development CIO Jerry Williams discusses how IT is moving from overlooked to a central player in the agency's work.
When Jerry Williams became CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development last July, he stepped right into a major transformation initiative at the agency, presenting him with both an opportunity to dramatically influence the future of information technology at the agency, and the challenge of how to do so effectively.

In his first months, he's focused heavily on organization and governance as a prelude to system upgrades and some other changes HUD will need to make to take full advantage of many of Williams' (and the agency's) ultimate goals. In a recent interview, Williams spoke with InformationWeek Government about his efforts to strengthen HUD's IT efforts.

InformationWeek: What opportunities do you see for IT to bring to bear on HUD's future as part of HUD's transformation initiative?

Williams: The initiatives are mostly about mission-related activities, and IT helps facilitate mission-related prerogatives that we have, but it's not in and of itself about IT.

IT will help inform this process by creating greater structure and rigor to the way in which we deploy mission-related applications and systems. We're a very siloed organization, and we need to create integrations between business stovepipes that exist within HUD and situate ourselves to apply analytics and business intelligence to support, across the department, decisions we make. That would be a huge win for the department and for IT.

IW: Talk a bit more about how you plan to improve integration and consolidate.

Williams: Like many organizations, we long built up applications and systems intended to assist in a particular business area. We're revamping our IT governance process to make corporate decisions to diminish the duplication in IT.

For example, today, there's a voucher management capability in our housing group, another in [the Office of Public and Indian Housing], and one in our community planning development group. Rather than building it three times, let's build it once and then overlay it with business intelligence that would allow us to inform future business decisions.

Another thing might be to look at performance. When you dissolve siloes, you can begin to look at well-performing programs vis-à-vis poor-performing programs and make determinations about where you're getting the bigger bang for the buck or better performance and shift your resources accordingly. IW: How will dissolving siloes position you to better measure performance?

Williams: Today, somewhere in the vicinity of 80-90% of business functionality is common, but because we lack a consistent terminology, we think our processes are unique unto themselves. That does not lend itself to comparative analysis. You want an apples-to-apples scenario that would allow you to look at performance and adjudicate it effectively. You can't really do that when it sort of looks like an apple but it's really a pear.

IW: What does that mean in terms of actually re-defining business processes?

Williams: That's about bringing parties to the table to discuss where the department should be going and the value that will be derived by going in that direction. We have to look at the way we conduct investment management so that we can identify these opportunities, and we also have to bring together the right group of people to make corporate decisions about how we want to manage HUD across the enterprise.

To that end, we've crafted a customer care committee composed of all general deputy assistant secretaries in the department, chaired by me. It's not about IT, it's about business and how IT can facilitate the end goals of the business. We bring together different people from different disciplines to talk about the capabilities they need or want, and determine how they sort out on an enterprise-wide basis and how we achieve economies of scale.

IW: What opportunities do you see for business intelligence at HUD?

Williams: In terms of what HUD does, one perspective is from the housing market situation, and another is from the perspective of homelessness in America. In terms of homelessness, HUD has information that has the potential for predictive qualities, including foreclosure data. If we pair that with information available around government, like subsistence payments to individuals who have lost their jobs, or data from [the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation] about corporations that have gone underwater, that can help indicate whether or not someone might become homeless and presents an opportunity to help forego that from happening.

Another area where business intelligence can play a role for us is in helping us to achieve economies of scale in the kinds of applications and systems we deploy, to make sense of how we invest in IT.

IW: How would you characterize the business intelligence work HUD's doing now?

Williams: We have some BI, but robust BI is going to be underscored by data that has high integrity, and where there are multiple sources of data, it requires reconciliation, which brings into question the integrity of the data, what's right and what's wrong. It's on a pathway, but there are a number of things you have to do to create a robust business intelligence framework for operating and we're on that path. IW: HUD's transformation initiative is broader than just IT, but one of the pillars discusses the need to upgrade outdated IT systems. What is HUD upgrading and why?

Williams: One of them is one I mentioned earlier, the voucher management system. The desire is not to have three but rather to have one, and the rationale is, if 80-90% of the functionality is the same, why can't you have one capability as an enterprise capability. You reduce your cost, improve your efficiency, improve the integrity of the data, and allow for some analytics around the information you're collecting.

Much like other agencies, we also have mainframe, COBOL systems, and if we're really going to be a 21st century, forward-leaning organization, we're going to have to get off of those systems, so we are working to figure that out. That will give us far more flexibility around how we use our data than we have today.

IW: In terms of being able to manipulate it, analyze it, and release it publicly?

Williams: That's exactly right.

IW: How can you use IT to improve customer service?

Williams: There are basically three things most or all IT organizations do. First, they drive service delivery capabilities. Second, they usually do service planning: basically investment management, project management, enterprise architecture, and security. The third thing you should do but we didn’t do a lot of is customer service management, performance management, and vendor management. When I came on board, we carved out those buckets, assigned a senior executive to each one of them, and defined the organization around it.

Customer service management is the notion, at least as it relates to our internal customers, of having a single "belly button" that businesses can talk to about their IT needs. Businesses used to reach out to IT and each time it would be a different person, and never did you have one person who understood comprehensively what the business needed. It almost encouraged shadow organizations.

The example I would give you is of the automobile industry, where we saw a pretty dramatic shift in the way they provided services by creating a notion of identifying for the customer what "team" you were on, and then that team managed the life of your car from cradle to grave.

The ideal for us is that you would have the right person to reach out to for whatever it is that you need to do. It would also give us the ability to reach back out and say, how did we do, not just to see how we measure up for you, but also how our results relate to own internal efforts in service delivery and service planning. IW: What are you doing from an IT perspective to improve services to the ultimate customer, the citizen?

Williams: It's still early in the process. Although we maintain and operate the infrastructure for HUD, we don't by and large operate the applications. I think that's a conversation that we're going to end up having with business units within HUD, but right now I'm not the belly button in that instance.

IW: So you run the infrastructure, but the business units run most of the applications?

Williams: That's an apt characterization. Now, the question is, is that the right state of being? My sense is that we need to work with the business units. If I look at the [Information Technology Management Reform Act], the CIO Act, it suggests that I need to play a more active role, and we have plans for doing that, but you have to crawl before you walk.

IW: That's a struggle a lot of your peers have in government as well. How should you navigate if you're in that situation?

Williams: We have some say because the standards are ours in terms of how applications are developed and deployed and the data architecture that underlies them.

However, it's really about building trust and credibility. Shadow organizations exist because people have lost confidence in their IT staff, so they go out and build it themselves. We need to develop the trust and confidence that we can deliver. We need to do things with that in mind because it's about winning back the trust and confidence of the business units within HUD.

IW: Part of it comes from the top as well. What is your relationship like with agency leadership?

Williams: The entire senior team understands and recognizes the value of IT and is supportive to me in helping achieve the ends that I'm trying to achieve. The secretary was recently awarded an award because of the time he's invested in IT at HUD. However, it's a journey. We're continuing to work to create more structure and discipline in the way we deploy and implement IT around the department. IW: Many federal CIOs also struggle with the scope of their budget authorities. How do you navigate questions of what you have authority over in terms of budget and what you don't?

Williams: I use my governance structure. The most awesome tool I have in my arsenal is those customer care committees we talked about. Everything is put on the table. We talked about voucher management earlier. The way we determined that we were only going to build it once was by one business area saying, hey, we're about to do this and another saying, wait a minute, we're doing it too, and yet a third saying, well so are we. By putting these folks at one table in a facilitated way, it brought a discussion where they said, maybe we don't have to do this all ourselves, maybe we can work together.

IW: You've started working on a successor to HUD's large IT infrastructure support services contract, HUD Information Technology Services, more popularly known as HITS. Could you give me a sense of what's going on with that planning?

Williams: HITS has taken us a long way, but if we're truly going to be a 21st-century, forward-leaning organization, we need to ask about the kinds of capabilities we're going to need in the future and begin to think about those things now.

We're taking a step back to define what the term "infrastructure support services" means, what the topology looks like, what the subcomponents are, how they relate to each other, how you measure it, which portions of service are inherently governmental from a control perspective [and thus must be run internally].

IW: When is the re-compete expected?

Williams: The period of performance goes out to 2016, but it also has a fixed price associated with it, so the period of re-compete may be much earlier.

IW: You have been very engaged with the IT Dashboard process. Do you see it as something that's important for federal IT, and why so?

Williams: The IT Dashboard is an awesome innovation in terms of how we manage IT across the government. It creates both transparency and accountability. I use it myself as a source of real-time data around the projects we have. Also, accountability comes by virtue of the transparency. If it were not for the fact that it was out there, we might not be talking about the infrastructure support services contract.

I don't mind being measured with other CIOs across government, because from time to time I can see what other CIOs are doing. I can also look at whether they can cross-service HUD. As an example, [Department of Education CIO] Danny Harris and I have had conversations on capability that he's probably one of the premier deliverers of in-government, Section 508 compliance [which regulates accessibility to government services], and how he might help bring it into HUD or how I can be cross-serviced by him. IW: What is the key to continued success for the IT Dashboard?

Williams: One of the more important things is [federal CIO] Vivek [Kundra]'s TechStat sessions, which are creating more granularity around how we're managing projects. Often, IT projects are over cost, over schedule, and don't deliver desired functionality. TechStat sessions get into the nitty gritty of how we're managing these projects. That's not a guarantee that you're going to be successful, but it increases your odds.

In addition, I think it's great when people are talking about how things are going because it provides different perspectives and perhaps things that one hasn't thought of.

IW: Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker has decided to create a more granular dashboard whereby he can look at not just the higher-level projects, but can break them down into smaller projects and programs. What are your thoughts?

Williams: We’re planning to do something similar. We're reaching out to Roger and others -- he and I are not the only ones thinking about this -- to determine how we can use this at a lower level in the department. It's a framework for how we can have discussions about our portfolio in our customer care committee.

However, one piece is technology and the other is culture. It's about creating the right governance framework, helping people to understand -- and these are non-IT people -- what we do, what the processes are, and why they have value. It can't be effective unless people have that data in front of them, look at it themselves, and can make comments and enhance it. I'm not going to walk into a TechStat session with just my IT folks. My intention is to bring in business sponsors from the program because they should be part of the discussion.

IW: Is the right data there for you to look at?

Williams: In some instances it is, and in some instances it isn't, but the trick there is that when data is being used, it becomes more robust. When we use the data for decision-making, we figure out what the flaws and the gaps in the data are.

I talked about TechStat, but we also have something called HUD Stat. HUD Stat is something chaired by the secretary and deputy secretary and is where we sit down and talk about capability at HUD from a business perspective with the IT guy, the CFO, and the procurement executive all sitting at the table as well as the individuals from the program. That's also all about transparency and accountability.

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