Feds Seek IT Ideas From Private Sector

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has called a meeting with business CIOs to identify emerging tech trends, with a goal of helping federal agencies begin planning now for what comes next.
In an unscripted moment at a recent fundraiser, President Obama bemoaned the sorry state of federal IT. "We can't get our phones to work,” he said. "Come on, guys. I'm the President of the United States!”

Obama’s frustration is shared by many. The federal government spends $80 billion annually on IT, and what does it get? Software boondoggles, gaping security holes, a poorly equipped workforce, and too many legacy systems in too many data centers.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra -- who acknowledged that the president is "absolutely right" in his assessment -- is aggressively seeking solutions. In December, Kundra released a 25-point plan to reform federal IT, with an emphasis on implementing "light" technologies for faster results, considering cloud computing in lieu of capital investment, and honing IT management skills.

Kundra is also looking outside the Beltway for new ideas. He has invited a half-dozen private sector CIOs to come to the White House next week to discuss the state of enterprise IT and where it’s headed, with a goal of putting federal agencies in a better position to capitalize on best practices.

It’s not the first time that the feds have sought (or been offered) tech advice from corporate America. The IT Industry Council, TechAmerica, and the Technology CEO Council have all weighed in, and IBM chief Sam Palmisano and Dell’s Michael Dell have floated a bold IT plan to save the country $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

What hasn’t yet happened is a roll-up-the-sleeves meeting of the people who are in the best position to put such big ideas into action: the federal agency CIOs and their corporate counterparts. That White House get together, facilitated by InformationWeek, will take place on May 4. The CIOs of American Express, FedEx, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Publix Super Markets, Sunoco, and United Stationers will talk about emerging tech trends that are beginning to impact their businesses and industries.

There’s a venue for a broader audience to take part in the discussion. Kundra and three of the private sector CIOs -- FedEx’s Rob Carter, Sunoco's Peter Whatnell, and United Stationer’s Dave Bent -- will continue their brainstorming the following day at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum, which takes place May 5 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It will be a rare opportunity for everyone involved to share ideas on how to bridge the tech gap that exists between federal agencies and the private sector.

It’s clear that tech know-how from the business world can inspire and drive change in government IT operations. At the FBI, CIO Chad Fulgham and CTO Jeff Johnson, former Lehman Bros. technologists, have introduced agile development to put the bureau’s $451 million Sentinel case-management system on a fast track. The FBI team will provide an update on the project and lessons learned at the Government IT Leadership Forum.

Other CIOs in federal government who hail from the private sector include the Department of Defense’s new CIO, Teri Takai, who put in 30 years with Ford Motor; Social Security CIO Frank Baitman, a former director of corporate strategy with IBM; Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker, one-time VP of IT at Visa; and Energy CIO Mike Locatis, who worked in enterprise IT for Time Warner Cable.

The flow of best practices isn’t a one-way street, of course. There’s something to be learned, not all of it bad, from the IT strategies of federal agencies. Many are a step ahead of businesses in adopting cloud computing. Others are beginning to use the "app store" model to offer agency-approved applications to the mobile workforce, a compelling idea that few businesses have implemented.

Parallels between corporate IT and government IT don’t always apply. Businesses are driven by profits, federal agencies by public service and national interests, and their IT practices must reflect those differences.

But there’s also vast common ground. On April 27, Obama issued an executive order requiring agencies to improve “customer service,” a long-standing challenge in federal government, and one where Web and mobile technologies offer new hope. In doing so, the president instructed government managers to "learn from what is working in the private sector and apply these best practices to deliver services better, faster, and at lower cost." Obama's order gives agencies 180 days to establish and publish their customer service plans.

The president, chagrined by his own experiences with White House IT, wants to see better returns on the feds’ $80 billion annual investment. Collaboration between public and private sector CIOs, such as at next week’s White House meeting, is a good start.

Tech execs who want to join the effort are invited to attend the Government IT Leadership Forum, where Kundra will lead a session titled "Brainstorming With The Private Sector." (Register here.) The session will also be live streamed at