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Obama's IT Transformation Is A Work In Progress

The president's record on IT strategy is long on vision but short on results.

InformationWeek Government - October 8, 2012
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Shortly after President Obama took office, he appointed the country's first federal CTO and federal CIO and promised to use "the power of technology" to improve government operations. Has he?

As the 2012 presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, Obama's performance as an IT strategist shouldn't be ignored. It's a record--much like his presidency at large--that's long on vision but short on results.

On his first full day in office in January 2009, Obama issued a memo calling on the heads of federal agencies to "harness new technologies" to make government data more widely available. Since then, agencies have released more than 378,000 data sets, resulting in hundreds of new applications.

But there are already signs that public interest is waning. Downloads of federal data on have trailed off, from 76,000 in September 2011 to 50,000 in August 2012. And a developer "community" created to spur activity around open data is more like a ghost town. The community's blog and online forum are inactive.

In Obama's first year, the appointments of Aneesh Chopra as federal CTO and Vivek Kundra as federal CIO met with wide approval. InformationWeek named Kundra our Chief of the Year in 2009, based on his vision for closing the government's tech gap by adopting new technologies. Kundra's sweeping 25-point IT reform plan aimed to make government more agile by breaking IT projects into more manageable pieces.

But neither Kundra, who took a high-paying job at, nor Chopra, who is running for office in Virginia, stuck around long enough to see the job through. Leadership discontinuity has been a long-standing problem in federal IT, and Obama's hand-picked choices proved to be no exception.

New Ideas

The new federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel, and federal CTO, Todd Park, have stepped in with smart ideas of their own. The new Shared Services Strategy seeks to leverage shared resources and purchasing power across agencies, while the Digital Government Strategy outlines a single approach to creating content for the Web and mobile devices. But it remains to be seen just how aggressively agencies will act on those and other White House initiatives--Cloud First, TechStat, PortfolioStat, FedRAMP, and data center consolidation.

The administration gets credit for holding the line on federal IT spending. At $79 billion, the federal IT budget for fiscal 2013 is about the same as it was four years ago. That flat line is significant because federal IT spending had been rising 7% annually. The difference between what Uncle Sam would have spent had that rate continued and what it did spend is $24 billion.

The Obama team thinks its IT strategy is on the right track. In Silicon Valley last month, VanRoekel said the feds are in the process of transforming IT from a cost center to "a strategic asset." The next day, at the InformationWeek 500 Conference, where he accepted our Government Innovators Award for OMB's Shared Services Strategy, VanRoekel told me he's been traveling with Obama to brief business leaders on the work at hand.

They have a good story to tell--as far as it goes. But the transformation of federal IT, which is still plagued by inefficiencies and outdated technologies, is anything but complete. We'd love to hear what you think--is federal IT headed in the right direction? Please drop me a note at the address below.

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