Busting Through The Federal IT Budget Ceiling

Federal agencies in lean startup mode? It's one of the ideas being floated as government CIOs look for ways to deliver new technologies and services despite flat IT spending.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

April 30, 2012

5 Min Read

50 Most Influential Government CIOs

50 Most Influential Government CIOs

Slideshow: 50 Most Influential Government CIOs (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Much of what you need to know about federal IT can be summed up in one number: -.0004%. That's the compound annual growth rate of the federal IT budget over the past three years, and virtually all decisions around tech projects, platforms, and policies are tied to it.

That ever so slight decline in federal IT spending doesn't sound like much, but it's very significant within the context of what federal IT spending was trending at. The federal IT budget, which stands at $79 billion, would be $103 billion had spending continued at the 7% annual compound rate that preceded the freeze of the past three years.

That $24 billion difference, and the fact that many agencies' IT budgets are lower this year than last, explains why federal CIO Steven VanRoekel talks of "innovating with less." And it's the backdrop for Office of Management and Budget policies aimed at consolidating data centers, reining in wayward IT projects, and winnowing down the number of federal websites. But the answer can't simply be less of everything. As VanRoekel said recently, "We've spent a lot of time the last few years talking about less, less, less. It's time to talk about the more."

[ Read Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progress. ]

More what? More mobile devices and applications, cloud services, government data sets made available to the public, digital records, and tech-enabled citizen services, for starters. The challenge faced by every federal IT pro is getting from here (less) to there (more). We're beginning to see how that can happen.

The Department of Defense in September launched an enterprise IT strategy that identifies 26 areas in which the Pentagon is looking to deliver new efficiencies or increase mission effectiveness, even as it faces almost $500 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years. Defense officials have made it a goal to develop an "agile" military that's innovative and technologically advanced.

"The emerging joint force, as well as the network that supports it, will be able to adapt to fit any situation. Agile operations will define the force of the future," DOD CIO Teri Takai wrote in a recent column.

The U.S. intelligence community is in the early stages of implementing a shared IT environment, billed as a cheaper, more efficient alternative to the IT silos intelligence agencies now use. It's a huge step forward for another reason: Shared hardware and services will make it easier for intelligence agencies to share information, a top priority since 9/11. The intelligence community is doing more, with less.

The Department of Energy has developed a cloud computing environment that different organizations within the department, and maybe other federal agencies, can use. Energy's community cloud will combine internally-developed technology with commercial cloud services. When federal CIO VanRoekel urges agencies to think about ways to use shared services, this is the kind of thing he has in mind.

Delivering more capabilities with less funding is never easy. It requires agencies to break federal-size problems into manageable pieces, as well as fast, flexible IT methodologies. It's something I call agile government, and you're going to be hearing a lot more about it. At a speech in Washington recently, VanRoekel urged federal IT pros to "help bring a lean startup mentality to government."

It's essential that government IT teams figure out how to do this within their own agencies--how to open the pipeline of IT-enabled innovations on flat or declining budgets. But where should they begin? And how?

Many of the government IT execs dealing with these challenges--including fed CIO VanRoekel, DOD CIO Takai, CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk, newly appointed federal CTO Todd Park, and more than a dozen others--will share their strategies at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum, which takes place May 3 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Now in its third year, the Forum is an event where government IT decision makers share ideas and solve problems in an open forum of their peers.

The Forum agenda will go well beyond "innovate more with less," though that's top of mind for many agency IT leaders. The day also will include an update on the National Mobility Strategy and demo of new mobile apps, a one-on-one interview with FBI CTO Jeff Johnson, a presentation by a representative of NASA's Earth Observatory, and an open government "reality check" that assesses whether open government is really making Uncle Sam more efficient and effective.

We also will hear from private sector CIOs--Lorraine Cichowski of the Associated Press and Steve Phillips of Avnet--who will serve as sounding boards for the tough issues on the table, as well as the opportunities, drawing from their own rich experiences. No one expects business CIOs to have all of the answers, but this discussion is sure to uncover areas of shared interests and solutions. (We hosted a similar brainstorming session with private sector CIOs at last year's Government IT Leadership Forum, which did just that.)

For government IT managers, there's no cost to attend the Government IT Leadership Forum, and we invite you to join us. Check out the agenda and register here. Based on what we learn, my next column should be more about federal IT's path ahead.

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.)

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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