What Government IT Can Learn From The Private Sector 2

Uncle Sam is getting advice from business to help close the tech gap, improve customer service, and plan for what's next.
June 2011 InformationWeek Government Digital Issue
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What Government IT Can Learn From The Private Sector FedEx faced the prospect of having to build a new East Coast data center to meet its ever-expanding IT requirements, but CIO Rob Carter decided instead to retrofit an existing facility and squeeze more processing power into a smaller space, saving millions of dollars. Could FedEx's approach work in federal government?

United Stationers, a leading distributor of office supplies, saw an opportunity to help its reseller and retail customers serve their consumer customers via e-commerce, so it acquired a software and services company to sell them e-commerce and other capabilities. Might government IT shops learn from United Stationers' transition from internally focused IT organization to one focused on serving customers?

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra would likely say yes to both questions. For two years now, Kundra has been trying to narrow the gap between private sector IT best practices and standard government IT practices, and he's going directly to the business world for ideas. That technology gap became a point of embarrassment in mid-April when President Obama, in unscripted comments at a Chicago fundraiser, complained about the White House's phone system. "We can't get our phones to work," Obama reportedly said. "Come on, guys. I'm the president of the United States." He quipped that the White House's technology is "like 30 years behind."

In early May, Kundra invited a half-dozen CIOs from the private sector, as well as seven of his government CIOs plus an administrative official from the federal CIO Council, to the White House for a three-hour meeting to discuss best and next practices in enterprise IT. Topics included emerging technologies and IT architectures, organizational structure and culture, cloud computing, and ways to improve customer service. InformationWeek editors facilitated and attended that meeting.

In an earlier demonstration of just how serious Kundra is about tapping into the best practices of business IT, he referred to private sector initiatives more than a dozen times when he issued the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point IT reform plan in December. That road map for federal IT reform references the private sector in data center consolidation, cloud computing, agile software development, and IT project management. The plan notes that "high-performing private sector firms quickly bring together small multidisciplinary, integrated program teams," and it proposes rotating government program managers into private industry to keep them current with the latest skills and practices.

InformationWeek made public-private-sector collaboration the starting point of our Government IT Leadership Forum on May 5 in Washington, D.C. The forum's opening keynote was a brainstorming session among Kundra and three CIOs from different industries: Rob Carter of FedEx, Dave Bent of United Stationers, and Peter Whatnell of Sunoco.

Kundra recapped some of the progress in federal IT over the past two years--$3 billion savings as a result of OMB's feet-to-the-fire TechStat project-evaluation sessions; data center closings and consolidation; adoption of cloud computing; and the shift to real-time security monitoring--but he also laid out the major challenges that remain.

"How do you take such a large organization as the U.S. government, with such diverse missions as the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services ... and turn that organization into a much more agile enterprise?" Kundra asked. "How do we fundamentally rethink the way we deploy these technologies?"

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