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10 Lessons From Leading Government CIOs

Under extreme budget pressure, federal IT leaders adopt shared services and build mobile app stores as they shift dollars where most needed.

More than a dozen of the federal government's top IT decision makers talked about the opportunities they see, and they challenges they face, at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum May 3 in Washington, D.C.

The speakers included federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, federal CTO Todd Park, and Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai. An overarching theme at the Forum was how agencies must "do more with less" on a flat IT budget that stands at $79 billion. Here are 10 lessons I took away from the event.

1. Shared services are the new trend in federal IT. With budgets flat, government CIOs are developing shared services (using one email system per agency instead of 18, for example). The redundancy of overlapping systems has been apparent for years, but service-based architectures and the need to free up funds for new projects are driving this trend. The major champion is federal CIO VanRoekel, who released the Federal IT Shared Services Strategy the day before the Forum.

2. Cap ex is shifting to op ex. Moving budget dollars from being a capital expense to an operating expense is the financial sibling to shared services. It's an area where government CIOs, who are big on cloud services, may have a lot to teach their private industry counterparts. Government CIOs are masters at using freed-up dollars to invest in innovation. Al Tarasiuk, CIO for the U.S. Intelligence Community, is juggling budget cutting and new capabilities with an adroitness that would be the envy of business CIOs, as he looks to cut up to 25% in spending over the next six years.

[ Learn more about how agencies are Busting Through The Federal IT Budget Ceiling. ]

3. Security must be ironclad. Private industry talks a good security game; federal agency CIOs bake security into every product and service they use. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for maintaining the security of the country's nuclear weapons stockpile, is working on a new community cloud initiative. The security concerns on that project would dwarf anything you would find in a cloud environment in business.

4. Government data makes good mashups. Building innovative applications by mashing together data from a variety databases isn't only for the private sector. Neil Bonner, program manager for applications development at the Transportation Security Administration, demonstrated MyTSA, a mobile application that helps travelers navigate airport security. The app combines real-time data on security line wait times, weather, flight information, and air traffic data--all from different government sources.

5. Red tape rules. Government operations are laden with policies and procedures that can stymie the best of technology initiatives. Private CIOs must deal with budgets and bureaucracies, too, but government CIOs have it worse in terms of regulations, fiefdoms, and inflexible budgeting. At the Department of Defense, the IT procurement cycle averages a staggering 81 months. DOD CIO Takai is looking to cut that to six to 12 months as part of a new IT modernization plan.

6. Agencies operate in glass houses. Private companies fund projects, fire people, and can sweep failed technology implementations under the rug without public scrutiny. Government CIOs operate in a world of visible budgets, open procurement, and public scrutiny. Just look at the backlash to the General Service Administration's $823,000 boondoggle in Las Vegas. Not many private sector CIOs that I know would want to operate under the scrutiny government CIOs face.

7. App stores are proliferating. The shared service concept and the growth of mobile devices are leading to adoption of the app store model in government. The CIOs speaking at the Forum were of one voice in championing the idea that they would provide portals for government apps. Civilian agencies have already made more than 100 apps available on USA.gov; the DOD and the Intelligence Community plan to develop app stores, too.

8. Big government means big data. Big data isn't just a private industry phenomenon. Robert Simmon, data visualizer and designer with NASA's Earth Observatory, helped create the Blue Marble images of Earth. That project requires a combination of data visualization, satellite imaging, and compute power which matches any big data project in the private sector. NASA's Earth Observing System alone has a 5.8 petabyte archive.

9. Self service is essential. Public access to government services too often involves long lines and manual, repetitive data entry. Increasingly, federal agencies are using mobile apps and the Web to make those interactions more fluid. Passport applications, tax filing, and licensing are all examples of the way Uncle Sam is headed.

10. Public input is needed. The shared service trend will free up funds as data centers are consolidated, redundant email systems eliminated, and programmers directed to work on new applications. The question is, what new services will have the greatest impact? Federal CIOs are building the platform; it's up to the citizenry to define the services they need most.

Hacktivist and cybercriminal threats concern IT teams most, our first Federal Government Cybersecurity Survey reveals. Here's how they're fighting back. Also in the new, all-digital Top Federal IT Threats issue of InformqtionWeek Government: Why federal efforts to cut IT costs don't go far enough, and how the State Department is enhancing security. (Free registration required.)

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