White House Moves To Future-Proof Government IT

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel's priorities for 2012 include making sure IT investments pay off, shared services, cloud computing, data center consolidation, and cybersecurity.
Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progres
Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progress
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The White House plans to require agencies to future-proof information technology decisions through the use of some mix of agile development, machine readable data, Web services and modular procurement techniques, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said in an interview with InformationWeek.

The details do not appear to be set in stone, but the requirements, which VanRoekel calls "Future First" (short for "future-ready first," he says), will come in guidance to be issued some time next year. "When we solve a problem to meet some mission need, it should be ready for the future, it should be expandable" he said. "This is about taking big mission solutions and breaking them down into small components."

In government today, procurements often take too long, project requirements are over-prescribed, and development takes place in a long waterfall process, which VanRoekel admits too often leaves federal IT projects "outdated or too inflexible in the end."

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VanRoekel first mentioned Future First in a speech in California in October, but didn't provide concrete details at the time. Kinks still remaining to be worked out as OMB develops guidance will be ensuring that policy doesn't lock agencies into particular technical paths or favor particular vendors. That's one reason, for example, that VanRoekel uses language like "machine readable" rather than XML, he says. The effort will be a sister initiative to the government's Cloud First and Shared First efforts, which exhort government agencies to deploy cloud and shared services.

At the root of each of these "first" efforts is a set of top priorities for VanRoekel over the coming year, including maximizing the return on investment of federal IT, closing the productivity gap between business and government, improving the interaction of businesses and citizens with government, and driving new, more efficient, and productive modes of IT investment, governance, and delivery. Cybersecurity, he said, will be a thread woven throughout these agenda items.

Maximizing return on investment seems to be an area of particular focus, but it's doesn't just mean doing more with less. "Sometimes we get caught up in just 'less,' how much money we'd save, how many data centers we'd close," VanRoekel said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., before the interview. "It's equally important to talk about what's going to be better." VanRoekel said that delivering on this action item will require pouring IT savings back into better, more productive IT spending to improve service quality and innovation.

In 2012, VanRoekel plans to particularly focus on delivering on his strategic goals through the use of cloud computing, shared services, data center consolidation, modular development techniques, and technologies to drive productivity like mobile and collaboration, he said in his speech.

Draft guidance on Shared First two weeks ago set a requirement for federal CIOs to move their agencies to two new shared IT services next year. VanRoekel acknowledged that shared services have been a consideration this year for the White House as part of the 2013 budget planning process, but he wouldn't provide more detail, as the budget is still in planning phases.

VanRoekel expects agencies to tackle low-hanging fruit first by consolidating email systems and moving to agency-wide enterprise technology licenses. He also sees a role for inter-agency services, in particular geo-services. Two weeks ago, OMB held a two-day meeting with the federal CIO Council and more than 50 agency CIOs. Shared services, VanRoekel says, was one of the primary topics.

The results of previous shared services efforts, including the Bush administration's "Line of Business" efforts, were rarely complete successes. VanRoekel says that the formula for success this time around will be on starting with commodity systems rather than large, complicated human resources and enterprise resource planning systems, and beginning with intra-agency shared services rather than pushing hard for inter-agency shared services right out of the gate. He's also engaging the federal Chief Acquisition Officer Council and Chief Financial Officer Council to ensure that it's not just IT that's on board.

VanRoekel is also working to get better data from agencies on their IT investments. For example, one of the problems with the IT Dashboard website, which is supposed to track federal IT spending but which auditors have criticized for having inaccurate and incomplete data, is that agencies don't have a common way of describing their systems. A draft document now circulating among agency CIOs aims to standardize agency language about IT investments to make it easier for OMB to "compare apples to apples," VanRoekel says.

"There's no way to kind of look at, to say to the government, how much do you spend on this category of stuff, and we're working with the CIO Council to work on common language, a common approach," VanRoekel says. The document includes common language about IT architecture, a common way to categorize IT purchases, and other standards, and will soon go out for public comment, he says.

Along the same lines, VanRoekel says he wants to get a much better picture of Web analytics for federal websites to better understand what the public needs and wants from federal websites. This would seem to play into the presidential mandate for improved customer service that President Obama issued earlier this year. Tangential to that effort, VanRoekel says he's having the NFL come to speak with agencies about how it does Web analytics and measures its success on the Web.

VanRoekel has a number of other priorities for the coming year, including delivering on open agenda items in his predecessor's 25-point plan. For example, on that front, he's having conversations with Congress about increasing CIO authority and a more flexible funding model (including, perhaps, multi-year funding, rather than single-year funding) for IT.

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